At 81, Playwright Athol Fugard Looks Back On Aging And Apartheid

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Under apartheid, trying to make an artistic political statement was difficult — artists were subject to scrutiny and even arrest. On the other hand, making a political statement was easy: All one had to do was put black and white actors on a stage together.

That's exactly what South African playwright Athol Fugard did back in 1961 with his breakout play Blood Knot. His newest play, The Shadow of the Hummingbird, is now onstage at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn.

Fugard has often acted in his own works, and Hummingbird puts him back on stage. At 81, he's not afraid to joke about his age; he plays an old man, talking with his grandson — and searching for his glasses.

When Fugard sat down with NPR's Renee Montagne, their conversation went back decades, to a time when he first started scribbling down his thoughts. A bookshelf filled with Fugard's notebooks — diaries of sorts — is central to the play.

"The notebooks were there even before I wrote the first of my plays," Fugard says. "Quite frankly, my apprenticeship was a period during which I wrote a couple of plays imitating the great American masters like Williams and O'Neill."

Until, that is, the young Fugard wrote a story only he could tell, as a South African, on the way to becoming his own country's version of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill. He carried on their fascination with people on the edge. In his work, South African characters locked in an intimate embrace, with every action leading inexorably toward an explosion.

"I think it is under the pressure of desperation that extraordinary things can happen in a human life," Fugard says. "And if ever there was a country oversupplied with desperation, it was South Africa in that time."

Since apartheid, audiences everywhere have experienced Fugard's plays as political and social dramas. But he says the heart of his work is the dynamic of family. The racially charged Blood Knot is about two brothers, one black and one light-skinned enough to enjoy the privileges of being white. It's a character Fugard himself originated.

"At that time, that would have been a very dangerous play to write and put on. It cost me my passport," he says. "I had to make a choice between leaving the country permanently — on what was called an exit permit — or staying on in a world in which I would not be able to leave of my own free will. ... They gave me back my passport, but by that time, I had forged my voice, and I knew what I wanted to do with my life as a writer."

Fugard had to be creative to work with black actors under apartheid. "Men had to have legal status that the government would recognize for being in a white area," he says. So when questioned, he would say he was employing the actors as chauffeurs or gardeners.

He hasn't had to employ such tricks since the end of apartheid in 1994. Today, Fugard says he is reckoning more with himself than with his country. So in this play, he reads his personal diaries, his notebooks, on stage:

It is Monday, the 15th, July, 2013. I was about to leave my chair, urgent matters needed my attention, and then a butterfly landed on a wall, and folded its wings in prayer. Also this morning, the shadow of a hummingbird on the floor at my feet, a perfect outline.

It's a two-character play: the grandfather, Oupa, and the young grandson who adores him, Boba. The grandfather has led an overly intellectual life, with a passion for listing and categorizing birds he's spotted. But on this day, he shares a story with Boba about seeing birds in a way that moved him spiritually. That moment gets to the heart of the play — a grandfather urging his grandson to keep hold of his innocence.

"In the course of acquiring all this so-called knowledge, I've lost something. I've lost contact with something that I had," Fugard says. "I wonder about myself now. I haven't shouted 'Hallelujah!' for a long time, you know? Can I do it once more? I would like to believe that."

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