Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Three Plays, Three Directors, One Interview: A Conversation About the Work of Athol Fugard

James Bohnen

Ron OJ Parson

Jonathan Wilson

Welcome to January and the official beginning of Chicago’s Fugard Fest 2010. As you may know, Timeline, Court, and Remy Bumppo Theatres are collaborating in an effort to bring awareness to Athol Fugard’s important work. Last month, an introductory article about Athol Fugard’s works was sent out to theatre patrons (access is at Timeline or Remy Bumppo if you have not yet read it). As Timeline’s production of “Master Harold” … and the Boys and Remy Bumppo’s production of The Island are about to open at the end of January, I, as the Fugard Fest Staff Writer, wanted to probe all three of these shows’ directors to get an insight into their experiences with Fugard’s works and what they hope to achieve through their productions. Here is what James Bohnen (JB), director of The Island at Remy Bumppo, Ron OJ Parson (RP), director of Sizwe Bansi is Dead and Court Theatre, and Jonathan Wilson (JW), director of “Master Harold” … and the Boys at Timeline, had to say.

KM: What was your first theatrical encounter with Athol Fugard?

JW: I acted in a production of A Lesson from Aloes at Northwestern University in 1982.
RP: I performed in several Fugard’s plays in my early days as an actor in New York at various theatres and workshops, and at school at the University of Michigan in the 1970s in the Black Theatre Workshop.
JB: My first theatrical encounter was in graduate school at Boston University in 1980 where a classmate had directed Sizwe Bansi is Dead.

KM: And did his work grab you right from the beginning?

JB: I had read a couple of other plays at that point, but that Sizwe production really taught me how potent the music of performing was. In New York in the early 1980s I saw the original American productions of “Master Harold”…and the Boys, A Lesson from Aloes, and The Road to Mecca. Years later in London, I saw the 25th anniversary production of The Island (the only time I have seen it) at the Royal National Theatre.
RP: I was fascinated with his work, the social injustices he explored, and what apartheid was doing to us as a world. I was also amazed in finding how the politics of Africa affected me in the United Sates; it made me more aware of the racism that existed right here at home. The style that the collaborators (Fugard, Winston Ntshona, and John Kani’s) work inspired such innovative productions.

KM: Have you directed other Fugard plays?

RP: I have only directed Sizwe, but I have acted in it twice prior to directing it at The Williamsport Drama Workshop in the early 1980s and a college tour in Pennsylvania which performed at local prisons; I have played all of the roles. I have also acted in A Lesson from Aloes in the mid 1980s in Buffalo, New York.
JW: I directed a production of Playland in 1994 at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. It was a wonderful experience. I worked with two really fine actors, Lou Ferguson and Gary Cole. The play is set in an amusement park on New Year's Eve, so we had an absolutely marvelous set for it as well.
JB: The only one I have directed is The Road to Mecca; Remy Bumppo produced it in 1999. It was fascinating to work on, how the combination of exploring the artistic impulse converged with life in South Africa and the frustrations of the passionate young white school teacher. Fugard’s connection to landscape and place speak quite strongly to me. Remy Bumppo was not very well established when we produced it...and it was the only time we did just one show....nobody came to see it....I mean, NOBODY. It was quite frustrating to the young, passionate white actress playing the school teacher. It all makes me smile now; I was delighted to have offered it to the community.

KM: What is it about Fugard’s plays that make them so vital to not only theatre, but the wider world?

RP: The political consciousness of his plays and the importance of Fugard’s works during apartheid; the way they continue to resonate. There is an incredible depth in his characters and a passion that endures in his work.
JB: I’d say the way Fugard’s plays are so firmly rooted in individual character. I think that is the key to their impact. These are always flawed, complicated people you come to know, so the ideas land with an almost unbearable lightness because they are one person's particular experience within a larger, bleak canvass. He is a writer who understands that power very clearly.
JW: Fugard always gives his audience a lot to think about and discuss when leaving the theatre. The relationships in his plays tend to be very complicated thus calling for very strong and experienced actors. I like the depth and honesty with which he writes. I tend to be drawn into the plot of his plays in much the same way as I am the plays of Eugene O'Neill, as if I am standing across the street in the beginning, then finding myself being slowly panned towards the characters. When we reached the inner soul of his characters and you can feel the turmoil, I am brought slowly back to where we started and made to contemplate what has happened long after I have left the theatre. Athol Fugard mesmerizes me by his style of writing.

KM: Why are you directing your particular play? What do you like about it?

JW: As an African American, I have a particular interest in the racial climate and politics of South Africa. I grew up following the apartheid situation in South Africa and learning about Nelson and Winnie Mandela and the African National Congress. I was introduced to the plays of Athol Fugard when I was in graduate school and found them to be a powerful look at South Africa's history from a personal and political perspective. I especially like “Master Harold”…and the Boys because, on the one hand, it is Fugard's personal recollection of his childhood relationship with his parents, and on the other it is his relationship with two black men who were long time employees of his family. These two men, Sam and Willie, became Fugard's surrogate parents, and in the play Hally, the central character, must deal with both sets of family. It reminds so much of my grandmother who spent much of her life traveling to white suburban homes in Amherst, New York to clean their homes and raise their children. When I graduated from college, my grandmother took me to one of those homes because she was very proud of me and wanted to show me off; it was a very uncomfortable situation. So I have a feel for what I think Fugard's central character is going through in “Master Harold”.
RP: I have always wanted to revisit Sizwe. I was a lot younger when I first worked on it and I now feel I can bring more depth to my direction of it today. I like the complexity of the characters and its political significance. I am looking forward to the challenge of bringing Sizwe to fruition with all of its necessary elements.
JB: I have always been moved by The Island. To be honest, I rarely have much patience for the Greek tragedies on stage, but this is a flaw in me, not the plays. I do love Antigone. The story is utterly universal and its message is deliciously unambiguous. It really comes to what writing plays like Fugard’s or acting in them under the apartheid regime is about. Understanding the risk inherent in the activity and knowing there doesn't seem to be another choice. There always is the choice to do nothing, of course, but this play gently brings us to a clear sense of purpose. The bravery in The Island, beginning with what the men did to land themselves on the island fascinates me. I wonder if I would have that courage...I doubt it.

KM: Do you have any concerns about directing your plays?

JW: As director, my only concern is bringing to the stage as close an approximation of what Fugard intended with this play as I can get.
JB: My concern is bringing the unspoken world of oppression into the play and being brave enough to make the first, unspoken section of the play difficult for both performers and not let the audience off the hook (or let any of us off the larger hook we are on).

KM: What do you hope that audiences will retain from your production? Or from seeing all three productions?

JB: It is so hard to predict any of that. The two things that move me most are the essential importance of comradeship and the constant, unchanging power of the truly universal stories.
JW: I hope that audiences will genuinely like all three of the characters in “Master Harold” …and the Boys, and be moved by the painful circumstances which puts their love for each other in jeopardy.
RP: Well I hope they get something from all three productions: an awareness of a political history that scared us as a people forever, a system that was overcome by sure grit and determination, and a realization that anything can be achieved if we work together.

KM: How can these three Fugard works affect or reflect today’s society?

JW: All three, on one level or another, deal with racial issues. All three plays are having productions in Chicago, one of the most polarized cities in the nation. I think it would be most beneficial if we utilized the productions as a vehicle for discussing black/white relations in Chicago.
ROP: We always need to know where we came from to know where we are going. Of course racism still exists, and South African history can even reflect our own history. We have to make sure there are reminders so we will never repeat the atrocities that took place during apartheid.
JB: I think these shows collectively are a somber reminder that man will be inhumane in new ways and old ways, and that these stories must serve as sentinels, reminding us that evil is always dancing somewhere. But more importantly, these plays are a study, and reminder, in the power of a compassionate response within dire circumstances.

KM: What do you say about the critics of Fugard who believe that these particular people and experiences he is writing are not appropriate for a white, South African to write about?

RP: Balderdash! There were many sacrifices made by a lot of people of all races and ethnic backgrounds to get the truth out about the social injustices that took place during apartheid; sometimes the messenger can be in many forms. Athol Fugard was a man of conscious who wanted to help make a difference. I say the same for a man like American abolitionist John Brown who saw an injustice and had the conscience and will to try and right it... (John Brown instigated and fought in several armed battles to bring an end to slavery).
JB: I know some people feel that way about him and his works, but I don't share the feeling (Is this because I am white? I don't know.). I am glad these plays exist, they seem human and real and driven by authentic feeling. The world is BETTER because they exist. It is the way I feel about Shakespeare’s plays. I don't care who might have written them, I just know that the world is better because of them. The same goes for Fugard’s plays.
JW: Good playwrights write about what they know. I trust that Athol Fugard has an understanding of the country in which he was born and raised. We can question his ideas and perspectives about issues of concern, but as an artist he has the right to depict what he believes to be true.

KM: What are your thoughts about the idea that Fugard’s plays beg the question “Who cares for whom in this world?”

JW: I think it is a very important question and at the center of what makes Fugard's plays so vitally important. Fugard teaches us that love for one another is what life is really all about. And if we can truly find it in each other it will overcome racial and political strife. He may be right.

By Kelli Marino, Chicago Fugard Fest 2010 Staff Writer