"I believe in the potency of theatre," playwright Athol Fugard says, "its power to affect individuals and change society."
Those words describe his own work well. Frank Rich, then theatre critic of The New York Times, wrote in 1988 that "Fugard is an artist who does want to change the world — and arguably has."
For much of Fugard's career, he battled the injustices of apartheid in his native South Africa. He is best known for plays that opposed the evils of that system and highlighted its tragedies, including Blood Knot, "Master Harold"...and the Boys, Boesman and Lena, A Lesson From Aloes, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island.
"It wasn't so much the world I wanted to change or affect," Fugard says, speaking on the phone from Stellenbosch, near Cape Town. "Change is a pretty big word. I wanted to affect my country. I wanted to see changes in South Africa. And I believe that the arts in South Africa played a hugely significant role in the pressures that finally brought about the release of Nelson Mandela and the beginning of democracy in my country." More than 50 years ago, Fugard organized a multiracial theatre. He backed a boycott of South African theatres because of segregated audiences. He was in constant conflict with his government. His plays were banned, his passport withdrawn, his movements restricted. Outside his country, though, his plays were hailed.
For New Yorkers now, this is the season of Fugard. This past June, he received a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award. A revival of his 1985 play The Road to Mecca begins performances Dec. 16 month at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre. In February, Blood Knot — with Fugard directing — begins Signature Theatre Company's retrospective of his work and opens the company's new Signature Center on West 42nd Street.
As a youth, Fugard studied at the University of Cape Town but dropped out, hitchhiked around Africa and spent two years working on a ship. His later experience as a court clerk highlighted apartheid's evils.
"My early days were searching, trying to understand. I knew very early that in some way my life was going to be about words on paper. But what form would that take? The determining factor was realizing that as fascinated as I was by words on paper, it was matched by my fascination with words in people's mouths. The spoken word. And that is the world of theatre."
He attributes that decision to his wife, Sheila. "She had just graduated from University of Cape Town as an actress. And she made me aware of this extraordinary possibility."
He started as an actor, and began writing. He wrote several plays before Blood Knot, which is about two half-brothers — one light-skinned, one black — living in segregated South Africa. It premiered for one performance in Johannesburg, then opened successfully Off-Broadway in 1964. "I think of it as marking my arrival as a playwright," says Fugard. "It's the play in which I discovered my own voice."
The Broadway revival of The Road to Mecca stars Rosemary Harris, Carla Gugino and Jim Dale. Gordon Edelstein directs. The play tells of a widow who creates unusual sculptures in her garden. "It's a play about creativity — the consequences, genesis and nature of a creative energy. Where does it come from? Why does it come? And what price do you pay for having it?"
And what of Fugard's creativity? "There's a play I haven't written. The reason I'm in Stellenbosch is I'm researching material for the new work."