By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Ted Soqui|
Upstairs, in Hollywood’s Fountain Theater rehearsal room, the many strangers who come together to stage a small-theater play — actors, directors, stagehands, staff, 14 people in all — sit around a large table or huddle against a wall, preparing for a first read-through of Athol Fugard’s latest, Exits and Entrances. It’s early April, a little more than a month before the opening of the legendary South African’s autobiographical, two-character enactment of the friendship between a young playwright and a fading star named Andr√© Huguenet. The assembled introduce themselves. Moving up one length of the table, the focus settles on a slender redheaded young man. “I’m William Dennis Hurley,” he says. “I play the Playwright.”
Next, a wiry, craggy-faced elf, with sparkling eyes and a neatly trimmed beard: “I’m Athol Fugard. I am the Playwright.”
After the introductions are complete, director Stephen Sachs remarks about his first impressions of Exits and Entrances.
“Athol described it as ‘my small play,’” Sachs explains. “I said it’s a very big small play. I am living now as a theater artist, looking around me, seeking answers for why we do what we do. This play is the artist’s appointment with self, when one’s disguises are stripped away. Andre goes from ‘I am’ to ‘Who am I?’ while the Playwright goes in the opposite direction.”
Fugard has been listening, absorbing. After a pause, he pounces.
“The reason I’m sitting at this table is, I can count on the fingers of one hand the good experiences I’ve had in a production I’ve had nothing to do with. One was a Fountain Theater production of [Fugard’s] The Road to Mecca [in 2000]. I knew it was being done somewhere and, God, I dreaded seeing it. In fact, I deliberately slipped in without letting anybody know I was coming. God knows it was one of the happiest moments of my career, just wonderful, everything about the theater, the sense of what the theater stood for, the sense of what that man [Sachs] stood for as a director and what he wanted to move from the page to the stage, all of that made me feel very, very comfortable. I knew, with a little bit of prodding from Stephen [Sachs], that I would be back in this theater.”
Fugard then talks about the autobiographical essence of the play:
“My circumstances were extraordinary in South Africa in that I had an extraordinary mother, almost illiterate, an Afrikaner. When she had to write a letter to our creditors for more time to pay the rent, or whatever, I had to write them as a schoolboy. But in one of those mysterious ways this world works, she was endowed with a natural sense of justice, and my political consciousness comes from her. She started asking questions: Is this right? What’s going on? I don’t think this is right, we can’t do this to people just because of a different skin color. I was the one person in the family she could talk to. We were very close.
“By the time of Sharpeville [a 1960 massacre in which South African police opened fire and killed black demonstrators who were protesting the “Pass Laws” — an apartheid fixture that regulated blacks’ movements and opportunities through a stamp in their passport], I was already at war with the system. One thing I could do is speak out, and that’s when I began to see the theater as a form of protest. Sheila, my wife, shared my political convictions; it was a problem when the government starts putting pressure on you. What this young playwright [in Exits and Entrances] doesn’t know in his vision of a theater that tackles the truth is that he’s going to have to pay a price for it. They were trying to force us to go into exile, that issue came up many times. Finally you say — the police get on to you, there will be six police in your house in the middle of the night, they tap your phone, they read your mail, but you enjoy a degree of protection because you’re a white man, but if you’re black . . .”
Fugard drifts into a reverie.
Athol Fugard was born in the Karroo village of Middleburg in 1932 to an Afrikaner mother and an English-speaking, Irish-Polish father. The family moved about through the mid-’30s, when his mother ran a boarding house in Port Elizabeth and a tearoom in St. George’s Park.
In the early ’50s, Fugard attended the University of Cape Town to study philosophy, but he dropped out and hitchhiked up Africa before traveling the world as a merchant seaman.
After returning to Cape Town a few years later, he started an experimental theater group with the woman he was courting and eventually married, actress Sheila Meiring. They tried out his own material for Sunday-night performances at the Labia Theater.
One of his early jobs was working as a clerk for the commissioner’s court in Fordsburg, where he came to understand the full extent of apartheid’s injustices.