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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

powerful."

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

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."

Introduced into Princeton’s theater community by McCarter artistic

director and playwright Emily Mann, Fugard’s "Hello and

Goodbye"

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

returning

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

rehearsal

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

"miraculous,"

the original, three-actor cast of "The Captain’s Tiger," which

premiered at the Market Theater in Johannesburg last year, will

reprise

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

director

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

Ntshona.

In the early 1980s, the seminal "Woza Albert!" and

"Serafina"

opened at the Market, inspiring a decade of protest-oriented South

African "poor theater" that it successfully exported to Europe

and America.

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

"ee

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

did."

"The Captain’s Tiger," Fugard’s latest, autobiographical

memory

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

further.

After seeing the actors perform, it was crystal clear to me why he

wanted to continue to work with them: their performances were simply

extraordinary."

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

the solution.

"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

years,

the theater that had, in fact, defied apartheid," says Mann, who

spent time in South Africa in the late ’80s researching the life of

Winnie Mandela.

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

July 25.

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

abolished

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

something

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?

"Paradoxically,

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

Britain

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

America"

and "Skylight," and her numerous television and film credits

include "Cry the Beloved Country."

Fugard is an impressive booster for the young "New South

Africa."

He attended the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings which,

while traumatic, may serve as a model for civil war and genocide

hearings

in other parts of the globe.

"The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has provided South

Africans,

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

happened.

And the testimony has been absolutely devastating. It’s been a

traumatic

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

achieved.’

Reconciliation is a mystery inside the human heart. It depends on

an absolutely naked admission of wrong and a genuine desire for

forgiveness.

And you can’t make that event happen on paper by creating a

commission.

"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

processes."

Steyn adds her strong sentiments about the promise of theater:

"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

allowed

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

bridges,"

says Fugard. Although the nation is four years into its transition

to democracy, Fugard says, it will take decades to wipe out the

inequalities

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

come,"

says Fugard.

— Nicole Plett

The Captain’s Tiger, McCarter Theater, 91 University

Place, 609-683-8000. $25 to $35. Opens Friday, May 8. To May 24.


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