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South Africa's Aging Witness Testifies Again

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): September 3, 2001, Monday    
South Africa's Aging Witness Testifies Again     By RACHEL L. SWARNS     empowerment   .

September 3, 2001, Monday

South Africa's Aging Witness Testifies Again


By RACHEL L. SWARNS

Athol Fugard runs his hands over the long gleaming table. It is a stage prop, an old has-been that was lost in the shadows of a secondhand store. But despite the dust, he immediately recognized the treasure. It is stinkwood, a rare indigenous wood with chocolate hues and golden lights.

The table is the centerpiece of Mr. Fugard's newest play, ''Sorrows & Rejoicings,'' which opened on Aug. 28 for a four-week run at the Baxter Theater here. It is the unwanted inheritance of a young mixed-race woman, who is unsure of what to keep and what to throw away from her past. It is a symbol of a modern South Africa still wrestling with its history, and perhaps of the aging playwright himself.

Mr. Fugard, 69, is the undisputed giant of South African theater, the defiant white artist who championed the liberation struggle and cheered apartheid's demise in 1994. Yet today, amid the celebration of black empowerment and African pride, he says he finds himself feeling a bit lonely and a bit unwanted.

''I've dealt with a certain degree of -- what would be the word? -- I suppose maybe the word would be rejection that I, as a white man, presumed to write and give a voice to the black reality in South Africa,'' Mr. Fugard said between sips of black coffee at the theater on a recent rainy afternoon.

''And that is the challenge in the play. That is the question. Is there anything in the past that's worth keeping? And you know, speaking as a white man, I would like to say, 'Yes, there is.' But I think if we were to go and talk to the people in the Khayelitsha shacks and ask them, they'd say, 'To hell with it.' There's definitely a tendency, an attempt to ignore the contributions that other racial groups made to the struggle.

''People are wanting to claim their own voices and the right to speak for themselves. So I think there's an impatience with me now. It would make, I think, a lot of people happy if, when '94 came along, my day was over, and my day was past.''

Mr. Fugard's beard is white now, and his hands tremble when he lifts his coffee cup. But he is far from finished. His new play marks his first serious attempt to describe the jubilant and uneasy world that has emerged here after decades of white rule.

''Sorrows & Rejoicings,'' which will open in January at the Second Stage Theater in Manhattan, tells the story of Dawid Olivier, a white liberal who returns home to die after 17 years of exile in London. He finds ''a young, new South Africa standing on its still wobbling legs'' and a mixed-race daughter who hates him.

Dawid's village is typical of the unsettling mix of old and new in this country. A mixed-race man is finally mayor, but his people -- known here as coloreds -- still live in the townships. The black government has promised big changes, but the shabby school for colored children is still shabby. And the disparate lives of whites and blacks are still inextricably linked. After Dawid's funeral his estranged white wife, Allison, and his colored maid and mistress, Marta, gather at the stinkwood table in the house where he grew up.

This is where a young Dawid wrote poetry by candlelight. It is where he wooed young Marta, violating the apartheid laws that banned love across color lines. It is where he presented Allison to his family as his fianc´e, while Marta served tea and died inside.

The flashbacks to Dawid's life are punctuated by the awkward, tentative conversation between the two women, who are still struggling to find their places in the new world.

Allison wrestles with the guilt of having benefited from a privileged white life even though she opposed apartheid. ''If this had been a free country back then, mightn't he have married you?'' Allison asks Marta. ''Had I got him, like so many other things in my life, because in addition to all my other splendid virtues, I had a white skin?''

Marta is battered by the resentment of her daughter, Rebecca, who loathes her father, Dawid, and despises her mother's devotion to the white man who abandoned them. ''I wanted to tell him how you have wasted your life waiting for him, sweeping and dusting and cleaning in here every day as if he was coming back tomorrow,'' Rebecca shouts at her mother.

Critics who follow Mr. Fugard's work say the play represents a return to the racial tensions that linger in South Africa. His first post-apartheid plays, ''Valley Song,'' and ''The Captain's Tiger,'' were more personal and less focused on the racial dynamics that informed many of his previous plays, including ''The Blood Knot,'' ''Boesman and Lena,'' '' 'Master Harold' . . . and the Boys'' and ''Playland.''

But for much of the post-apartheid era, critics say, Mr. Fugard has struggled to find his voice.

''He's been an absolutely staunch pioneer, a complete trend setter, but he lost his bearings,'' said Stephen Gray, an independent scholar who has edited three books about Mr. Fugard. ''I didn't think the 'Valley Song' and 'The Captain's Tiger' were the right plays for those moments. They just didn't catch.''

Some blacks complain that critics are misguided in their continued focus on Mr. Fugard, saying such attention neglects emerging black playwrights. Such complaints have fueled Mr. Fugard's sense of alienation. But Mr. Gray says Mr. Fugard may have contributed to his own sense of isolation by physically distancing himself from South Africa.

Mr. Fugard, who owns a home in Del Mar, Calif., spends half the year in the United States, where ''Sorrows & Rejoicings'' was written. It was the first of his plays to be entirely written outside South Africa, he said. And it had its premiere, not here, but at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.

''We hardly see him,'' said Mr. Gray, who lives in Johannesburg. ''In the old days we used to get previews of everything and months and months of preliminary workshops. He's been doing all his early work in the States. It corresponds with a sense that he's not writing for South Africans anymore. He's writing for overseas.'' Mr. Fugard denies that he has lost touch with his country. He owns two houses in New Bethesda in the Karoo, the vast semi-desert that inspires much of his creativity. He has even bought his own cemetery plot there. But he admits that he struggled through a period of creative confusion after Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first black president.

''After those elections in '94 I reached the point where I said to myself, How useful, how relevant will I continue to be in the new South Africa?'' Mr. Fugard said. ''I mean, so much of the energy I used in my writing came from my sense of anger and outrage with what was happening in apartheid South Africa. With the big transition, I said to myself: Is that it now? Am I going to be South Africa's first literary redundancy as it were?''

But Mr. Fugard said a nagging sense of his own mortality persuaded him to return his attention to the stories and issues that burn here. He turned 69 in June. His fingers ache sometimes with arthritis when he writes, and time, he said, is nipping at his heels.

''You know once you hit 70 that you're in the home run, for God's sake,'' Mr. Fugard said. ''I'm not going to live for another 70 years, that's for sure. So that sense of time running out, and certainly energy is running out, makes it imperative that I connect with or reconnect with what is important in my life.''

What matters, Mr. Fugard says, are the triumphs and struggles of ordinary people still finding their way in this new democracy. The new play, which he has directed, is peppered with things South African, with phrases in Afrikaans, with mentions of Five Roses Tea and Koo Apricot Jam and vivid descriptions of the vast, forbidding Karoo, where the story is set.

Dawid delights in the Afrikaans town names on the highway signs, and Mr. Fugard does, too, whenever he drives from Johannesburg to New Bethesda and passes Wonderboom, Rietfontein, Heuningspruit. Mr. Fugard has given up acting for good, he says, and he may soon give up directing, too. But he is determined to continue writing and capturing this reality.

''He sees the passing of a certain kind of culture, the Afrikaner culture and some literary traditions dying,'' said Marianne McDonald, a professor of classics and theater at the University of California at San Diego, who is writing a book about Mr. Fugard. ''He's advocating trying to save some of those things.''

In the play Rebecca suggests that the only identity that matters now is a black one. She inherits Dawid's house and the stinkwood table, but she wants none of her white father's things. ''Say goodbye to this house and its ghosts,'' she begs her mother. ''There's nothing left for you here. Come back to the location with me. There's a real life waiting for you there, with real people, our people.''

But Allison warns Rebecca not to turn her back on her past. ''If you think you and your new South Africa don't need it, you are making a terrible mistake,'' Allison says. ''You are going to need all the love you can get, no matter where it comes from.''



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Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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