His Next Act: Driving Out Apartheid’s Ghost



Owen Sejake, left, and Sean Taylor, rehearsing the new play, in which Mr. Taylor’s character searches for a black woman’s grave.  Pieter Bauermeister for The New York Times 

CAPE TOWN — Athol Fugard, the renowned South African playwright, paced at the edge of a plywood stage, rubbing his head and listening intensely to two actors run through their lines. Rehearsals for his new play, “The Train Driver,” had begun.

With stents in his arteries and his hearing fading, Mr. Fugard, 77, is back telling stories shaped by South Africa’s tormented racial history. But for the first time, a drama by this grand old man of the South African stage will have its premiere at the Fugard, a new theater named in his honor.

The South African playwright Athol Fugard at a rehearsal of his new play, “The Train Driver,” which will open March 24 at a theater in Cape Town that was named in his honor.  Pieter Bauermeister for The New York Times

“I want you to do something for me,” Mr. Fugard told Sean Taylor, who plays a white train driver searching for the grave of a black woman who had stood on the tracks directly in his path with a baby on her back, waiting for death. Mr. Taylor had laughed dementedly in Scene 3. Mr. Fugard, directing a play for the first time in a decade, told him, “Nothing is funny. No jokes. It’s all real.”

The Fugard is among many privately organized efforts — in culture, education and social services — that aim to help South Africa overcome the damage wrought by its colonial and apartheid-era past. The theater’s creators hope the transfiguring power of art will help change this breathtakingly beautiful, but still highly segregated, city by the sea.

Housed in what were once 19th-century textile warehouses and an old Gothic church hall, the Fugard now provides a permanent home for Isango Portobello, an all-black troupe of actors and singers, mostly from the nearby township of Khayelitsha, that has won critical acclaim across Europe.

Audiences “will be sitting in the lap of a ghost,” Athol Fugard has said of the theater, home to an all-black troupe of performersPieter Bauermeister for The New York Times 

The hope is that the Fugard and its resident acting ensemble will attract people of all races to mingle on its upholstered benches. Eric Abraham, the South African-born film and theater producer who has financed both the theater and Isango Portobello, said he believes the talents of the acting ensemble will prove to be “an antidote to prejudice.” The seating has been intentionally left open so serendipity can bring people together.

“It’s about aspirational hope, and that’s as much needed as delivery of water, electricity and shelter in this city,” Mr. Abraham said.

The theater had its gala opening last month on the fringes of District Six, an area with particular resonance here. In 1966, the district was designated for whites only and its mostly mixed-race (as they were classified) residents were forced out and their homes bulldozed as part of the white minority government’s apartheid scheme.

At the opening, the country’s deputy president and various cabinet ministers watched Isango Portobello perform “The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo,” with Mozart’s score transposed for an orchestra of marimbas.

“I assure you that every audience in this house will be sitting in the lap of a ghost,” Mr. Fugard, his eyes brimming with tears, told the audience, referring to the 60,000 residents of District Six who were driven from their homes during the apartheid years.

In 2008 the production, which played at the Young Vic and the Duke of York’s in London, won an Olivier Award for best musical revival. This year it won the Globes de Cristal Award for opera after a season at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris.

A memorable cast of characters has brought the theater and acting company to life. Mr. Abraham, 56, who put up some $7 million for the two undertakings, grew up in privileged white Cape Town. He was placed under house arrest in 1976 for reporting on black politics for the BBC. The following year he went into exile in England, where he was granted political asylum and made his career. He lives in London and is married to the Swedish philanthropist and publisher Sigrid Rausing.

Mark Dornford-May, 54, is the burly, British artistic director of the acting company. He first put together a black cast to perform at a wine estate’s 2000 summer festival near Cape Town by spreading the word through township choirs. Two thousand singers showed up to audition. One of them was Pauline Malefane, 33, a sublime soprano who is now his wife and a musical director of the company. More than eight months pregnant, she performed as the Queen of the Night in “The Magic Flute” until recently.

Mannie Manim, 68, executive director of the Fugard and a veteran theater manager, was an usher at the Brooke Theater in Johannesburg in 1958 who literally raised the curtain on Mr. Fugard’s play “No-Good Friday.” He said that he has produced every play Mr. Fugard has written since the late 1960s and that he hopes the Fugard will be “a crucible for excellence.”

“This will be the South African response to the Royal Shakespeare Company, if you like,” Mr. Manim said. “He’s our Shakespeare.”

The theater’s organizers acknowledge that they have a long way to go in building a multiracial audience. On a recent Wednesday evening, virtually every person at “The Magic Flute” was white, a fact regretfully noted by the theatergoers themselves.

“It looks like the Cape Town liberal elite,” said Jacky Davis, a British doctor who volunteered in a black township 30 years ago and was visiting the city as a tourist.

Mr. Fugard said in an interview that the new democratic South Africa — struggling with poverty and corruption, among other challenges — needs the arts of stagecraft “as urgently as the old South Africa needed those first few daring, sometimes suicidal acts of defiance in the theater.”

“The Train Driver,” which opens on March 24, gestated in Mr. Fugard’s mind for years after he read an article in the Mail & Guardian, a South African weekly, about a black woman named Pumla Lolwana from a Cape Town squatter camp. On Dec. 8, 2000, she stood on the tracks with her three children, Lindani, Andile and Sesanda, and waited for a train to kill them all.

“I cannot fathom a darkness so deep that a human being can finally say, ‘There is no hope,’ ” Mr. Fugard said.

He wound up telling an imagined version of the story through the white train driver’s outpouring of rage and grief, witnessed by a black grave digger in the cemetery where the woman and her child — stand-ins for Ms. Lolwana and her children — had been buried in an unmarked grave. Everything he has written before, Mr. Fugard said, was “a journey to the writing of this play.”

In the play, the train driver claims the dead mother and baby, as Mr. Fugard said his own plays have sought to “claim people, refusing to allow them to pass on into oblivion, trying to bear witness.”

Mr. Fugard, who now lives in San Diego, said that an American friend, Stephen Sachs, the co-artistic director of the Fountain Theater in Los Angeles, wrote to him, saying the play was a summation of “who you are, your life-long internal struggle, the long road you’ve traveled as an artist and a white man in South Africa.”

“White guilt,” Mr. Sachs wrote. “White shame. Digging up the bones of the nameless black dead. Trying to make sense of it. Give it meaning.”