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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on Wednesday, June 3, 1998. All rights reserved.

Athol Fugard Sounds The Alarm

It's a very good thing that Athol took such fast decisive action," said Emily Mann, the day after South African playwright Athol Fugard withdrew the play that was to have opened the Manhattan Theater Club's (MTC) 1998-'99 season in New York. "In ringing the alarm, Athol's done a great service to the theatrical community. He rang the bell just like the captain's tiger, and said, `Wake up!'"

Fugard took action on Tuesday, May 26, two days after the play in question, "The Captain's Tiger," ended its American premiere run at McCarter Theater. He was provoked by MTC's May 21 announcement that -- citing security problems -- it would cancel its scheduled production of "Corpus Christi" by Terrence McNally, the play that would have followed his own in the MTC season.

What began as a letter-writing protest against "Corpus Christi" by the conservative Catholic League escalated into anonymous phone threats to burn down the theater, kill the staff, and "exterminate" McNally. The threats were based on its reported plot about a Christ-like gay man named Joshua who has sexual relations with his disciples. The title is Latin for "Body of Christ;" it is also the name of the Texas city where McNally grew up and was raised a Catholic.

The art community in general, and McNally himself, was shocked by MTC's decision to cancel the play. Some asked, When airlines are threatened by terrorists, do we stop flying?

Fugard's protest, and a petition drive by New York's most esteemed playwrights, led by Tony Kushner and Craig Lucas, proved effective. On Thursday, May 28, MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow announced the theater would proceed with its production of "Corpus Christi" with assistance from the New York Police Department, whereupon Fugard restored his work. "I have boundless admiration for Lynne Meadow's courage and would be absolutely delighted to bring back my play," said Fugard. The play opens this fall at MTC.

At the McCarter press conference that launched "The Captain's Tiger" in Princeton, Fugard spoke passionately about the post-apartheid South African democracy, and hailed that nation's independent theater for providing a platform for debate. "Theater did in fact make a very, very significant contribution to the extraordinary changes, the miraculous changes that took place just four years ago, when we found ourselves at the polls in our first free and totally democratic election," said Fugard. "And theater's contribution was a very powerful one. It kept alive a dialogue and a debate about fundamental human values in an environment, a climate, and a time when those were being denied."

MTC, widely known for its offerings of provocative, new plays, has been home base for more than a decade to McNally, one of New York's most successful playwrights. He wrote the theater treatment for the musical "Ragtime," currently nominated for 13 Tony Awards. He also wrote stage and film hits that include "Master Class," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "Love! Valour! Compassion!" and "Lips Together, Teeth Apart."

Although the content of McNally's new play may prove offensive to many, Mann believes the public must reject intimidation and violence. "The only way for a democracy such as ours to thrive is to give its writers full voice, to hear all sides of an issue. Theaters in particular must not buckle under to those forces trying to undermine free speech."

-- Nicole Plett


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