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This story by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on
May 6, 1998. All rights reserved.
From Fugard & McCarter, A South African Exchange
During 40 years of enforced racial apartheid, South
Africa lived in extreme isolation from the international community.
Yet even during that bleak period, says Athol Fugard, South Africa’s
leading playwright, its theater became "rich and potent and
In a world in which so many people were silenced or gagged, theater
offered a vital voice.
"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," says Fugard. "And
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."
Introduced into Princeton’s theater community by McCarter artistic
director and playwright Emily Mann, Fugard’s "Hello and
was performed at McCarter in 1994, followed by the American premiere
of "Valley Song" in 1995. For many residents, the four-year
association has made him a familiar figure. And the feeling is mutual.
"Coming back to the McCarter is like coming home as far as I’m
concerned," said Fugard last week in the theater lobby. "My
times away from here are like odysseys into another world. And
home — the dog is waiting, Penelope is at her loom, and there
are lots of suitors."
Flanked by artistic director Emily Mann and actors Owen Sejake and
Jennifer Steyn, Fugard spoke at a press conference during the
period for Fugard’s "The Captain’s Tiger," his latest play
that opens at McCarter on Friday, May 8.
In an arrangement Fugard says is nothing short of
the original, three-actor cast of "The Captain’s Tiger," which
premiered at the Market Theater in Johannesburg last year, will
their roles at McCarter through May 24. At the same time, Mann’s play
"Having Our Say," directed by Loretta Greco and featuring
Lizan Mitchell and Micki Grant as the centenarian Delany sisters,
will be performed at Johannesburg’s Market Theater.
The theater event is being hailed as the beginning of an international
cultural exchange between Princeton and Johannesburg.
A landmark on South Africa’s cultural and political scene, the Market
Theater was founded in 1976 by the late Barney Simon, managing
Mannie Manim, and a group of young actors. Fugard, who was associated
with the theater almost from the beginning, workshopped the Market’s
1977 production of "The Island" by John Kani and Winston
In the early 1980s, the seminal "Woza Albert!" and
opened at the Market, inspiring a decade of protest-oriented South
African "poor theater" that it successfully exported to Europe
In 1989 the Market Theater Laboratory was founded to
develop new work and new actors. In 1995 president Nelson Mandela
attended the gala reprise production of "The Island," and,
for the first time in its history, the 21-year-old theater was granted
government funding. The complex now consists of three theaters (one
450-seat, and two 150-seat houses), an art gallery, photo gallery,
drama school, and a photo workshop.
John Kani of the Market Theater has described in an article how
continued for 20 years as an island of sanity, as evidence of the
fact that black and white could meet, discuss, interchange, and create
together as a seed for our new South Africa. We took our inspiration
from the lives of our people, from their streets and workplaces, and
when newspapers were forbidden from informing us, the Market Theater
"The Captain’s Tiger," Fugard’s latest, autobiographical
play that premiered at the Market last year, is set during his days
as a "captain’s tiger," a nautical term for the captain’s
personal assistant aboard a merchant ship. Its point of departure
is a haunting and cherished photograph of his mother as a young woman.
It features the playwright in the dual roles of himself as a young
man and as he is now.
"When I was 20 years old, I had the good sense to leave university
a couple of months before I wrote my final exams for my degree,"
Fugard explains. "I ended up aboard an old tramp steamer that
sailed around the world. During that period, I set out to try and
write the great South African novel. My play is a personal memoir
about that experience." With two additional actors, Sejake and
Steyn, the play tells of the friendships and influences that enabled
the young Fugard to find his voice and purpose as a writer.
"`The Captain’s Tiger’ was one of the great nights I have spent
in the theater," says Mann, who traveled to Johannesburg for the
opening. "At dinner afterwards, Athol made it clear that it was
of utmost importance to him to continue working on the play with the
original actors. They had created the roles, and he wanted to go
After seeing the actors perform, it was crystal clear to me why he
wanted to continue to work with them: their performances were simply
Fugard’s interest in bringing the original cast to the United States
faced a major obstacle in Actors’ Equity. The American actors’ union
would not allow the South African actors entry because they would
be in effect taking jobs away from American actors, Mann explains.
Then Jeff Woodward, managing director of McCarter Theater, devised
"It was Jeff who thought up the idea of the exchange," says
Mann. "What, he thought, if we sent two American actors to South
Africa in exchange for Owen Sejake and Jennifer Steyn?" Although
the idea sounds more like a negotiation for hostages than cultural
exchange, it worked.
The trade, Mann’s two-actor play, "Having Our Say," premiered
at McCarter and enjoyed a nine-month run on Broadway. Then it went
on to tour 126 cities, including a return engagement at McCarter with
Mitchell and Grant in the lead roles.
"When I wrote `Having Our Say,’ I frequently thought about how
wonderful it would be to see this play in South Africa and at the
Market Theater — the theater that I have admired for so many
the theater that had, in fact, defied apartheid," says Mann, who
spent time in South Africa in the late ’80s researching the life of
So while Mannie Manim, managing director of the Market Theater, will
be at McCarter for the opening of "The Captain’s Tiger" on
May 8, Mann and Woodward plan to be at the Market Theater for the
June 30 opening of "Having Our Say," which plays there to
Noting his pleasure in being able to introduce Mann’s play to South
African audiences, Fugard notes that the end of apartheid has not
exactly been a cultural bonanza. "Unfortunately, one of the first
things that happened when all our strict censorship laws were
wasn’t that a flood of great literature came into South Africa, it
was in fact pornography. Not only at that offensive level, but in
terms of our television, too, the flood of material is of a really
indifferent quality. I hate to say this, but I’m afraid it’s the worst
of popular culture in America that has flooded into South Africa."
Now, he says, "with `Having Our Say,’ a generation of young South
African writers who do not have the opportunity of leaving the country
and traveling abroad are going to have an opportunity of seeing
that is representative of the finest of American theater."
"Being a playwright in the new South Africa is going to be a much
more complex reality than in the old one," he says. Why?
simply because we do not have any longer the simple, identifiable
enemy that we had in the system we wanted to speak out against. In
South Africa writers of the present moment, and most certainly of
the future, are going to have to feel their way through the sort of
gray areas of society that American writers have had to negotiate
over past years. We’ve also got the added responsibility as writers
to contribute toward the cause of nation-building. Because that is
really the challenge we face, and the single most powerful mandate
writers face in terms of the future," says Fugard.
Owen Sejake, who plays Donkeyman, started his career in 1972 and
is one of South Africa’s best known actors. He has performed in
and Europe. Sejake, who says "I never thought in my wildest dreams
that I would one day find myself at the McCarter Theater," finds
the exchange most thrilling "because it’s a long time coming.
Fugard’s work has made it possible for us to be within earshot or
within a shout in the international world."
Jennifer Steyn, who plays Fugard’s mother Betty, is
a leading South African actress who graduated from the University
of Cape Town in 1983. Her stage roles include "Angels in
and "Skylight," and her numerous television and film credits
include "Cry the Beloved Country."
Fugard is an impressive booster for the young "New South
He attended the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings which,
while traumatic, may serve as a model for civil war and genocide
in other parts of the globe.
"The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has provided South
and the world at large, with a kind of living theater that is beyond
anything one could ever put on stage," he says. "The lives
of ordinary South Africans, people who had been silenced by the old
system, have been given a chance to get up and talk about what
And the testimony has been absolutely devastating. It’s been a
experience for South Africans to discover exactly what those 40 years
of apartheid meant to the majority of our citizens simply by virtue
of their skin color.
"So the truth has come out. It has achieved half of its objective,
which is truth and reconciliation. On the score of reconciliation,
I don’t think one can just lightly say, `reconciliation has been
Reconciliation is a mystery inside the human heart. It depends on
an absolutely naked admission of wrong and a genuine desire for
And you can’t make that event happen on paper by creating a
"For the majority of white South Africans, yes, finally, they
understand with a sense of shock what they had subscribed to during
those 40 years of apartheid. and I think to that extent, South Africa
continues to offer the world a bit of a lesson in necessary
Steyn adds her strong sentiments about the promise of theater:
offers one that very special platform, where one can feel. So that
in terms of reconciliation, a process that’s going to take years,
I think there is a place for stories — a place where we are
to feel the anger or pain or guilt that we have been experiencing
as a nation."
In response to a question, Fugard addressed the issue of an artistic
community in transition. "The challenge of our contribution is
nation building, of understanding cultural diversity by building
says Fugard. Although the nation is four years into its transition
to democracy, Fugard says, it will take decades to wipe out the
created by the years of apartheid. "My sense of theater is always
that theater is about desperate people. I think there are going to
be enough desperate people in South Africa for a long time to
— Nicole Plett
Place, 609-683-8000. $25 to $35. Opens Friday, May 8. To May 24.
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