In Athol Fugard's newest play,Victory (which is making its U.S. premiere at Hollywood's Fountain Theatre), the white South African takes a hard, 70-minute look at exactly what "freedom on the march" actually means, nearly 20 years after the world events that spelled the end of both apartheid and Soviet communism. Fugard's lifetime critiques of apartheid so defined his identity as a playwright — in works such as Master Harold and the Boys, The Road to Mecca and Sizwe Banzi Is Dead— that he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and he himself questioned in 1995 whether or not South Africa's reversion to majority rule had extinguished his larger purpose.
No, it hasn't. Rather, it has aided in his transition from being an artist-advocate, through stories marbled with indignation at his country's bigotry, to being a tragedian through stories marbled with regret.
Victory revisits the kind of small Karoo village Fugard wrote about in his 1996 Valley Song. Like that earlier play, Victory has three characters and follows a similar dynamic. Both works contain gentle, thoughtful and aging white men who engage in bittersweet confrontations with a "colored" (mixed-race) teenage girl eager for the personal independence promised by the new, black-ruled South Africa.
In both plays, the girl is a precocious child-woman eager to get off the farm and on to the city — whether it be Johannesburg in Valley Song,or Cape Town in Victory. Veronica is Valley Song's ingenue, innocent at her core. In Victory, however, she's named Vicky (Tinashe Kajese), and Fugard has slightly hardened this archetype of South Africa's future into a reflection of his growing disillusion. Vicky's dire poverty and absence of hope have tainted her ambition to such an extent that, in order to help pay for a new life in Cape Town, she's willing to participate in armed robbery — against the very man who employed her late mother as a maid.
The attempted robbery forms the crux of the drama, which opens with Vicky and an accomplice rifling through drawers using a flashlight, wrongly presuming that the homeowner, a widower-schoolteacher named Lionel (Morlan Higgins, who was featured in the last Fugard premiere at this theater, Exits and Entrances), is out of town. He stumbles down the stairs in midraid, groggy and armed with a pistol — moving the play somewhere between a potboiler and a meditation. It's one thing to rob a bank or a liquor store. It's quite another to loot the home of the man who helped teach you to read, as Lionel did with Vicky. This is Fugard's political allegory tinged with bitterness. Vicky has been gaming Lionel for money, claiming falsely that it was needed for school supplies, when education is the last thing on her mind. The author's heartache comes wrapped in the young woman's name, Victoria — picked by her pregnant mother, anticipating that the baby would be born on the same "victory" day that Nelson Mandela walked out of prison after 27 years, the first step toward winning the South African presidency.
Vicky's partner in crime is a spry user named Freddie (Lovensky Jean-Baptiste), who, through considerable bluster and bungling, carries out two telling actions. First, he seizes the gun when Lionel blithely leaves it on the table. This is not a dramatic flaw but an insight into the old man's state of heart, which he reinforces with the repeated line "I just don't care anymore." Whoever holds the gun holds the power, Lionel notes — not the most original insight. Yet the transfer of weapon from white man to black, given both reluctantly and freely — like Afrikaner President F.W. de Klerk finally legalizing Mandela's African National Congress — is as loaded as the gun itself.
Freddie's other deed cuts a far deeper wound: He desecrates Lionel's library by urinating on the books that he's tumbled from their shelves. One, significantly, is a copy of Tolstoy's Resurrection— a homage to the capacities of forgiveness. Resurrection winds up "marked" and shredded on the library floor — along, it seems, with Mandela's Truth Commissions, considered to be fairly radical acts of forgiveness.
Through all this, Fugard remains a storyteller first and a moralist second. Lionel makes a priority of people being civil. That may be all we really have in this world. The libraries and manicured English gardens of minority white rule were part of a civilization enforced by the whip and the bullet, and Fugard is making a severe dramatic inquiry into the unfettered rage that is the consequence of that enforcement. When Vicky mockingly dons a scarf to serve her "master" Freddie, he barks orders at her. Lionel's one request is that Freddie at least include the word please— as though such decorum would make her less of a slave. It's not the distribution or redistribution of power that annoys the old teacher, but the lack of politeness, which makes Lionel as quaintly absurd as the old Russian aristocrat Gaev, in Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard— another study in the ludicrous dynamics of an incoming social revolution.
Lurking in the shadows of Victory's claustrophobic library is Fugard's appeal for mutual respect in a life that curses us all, in one way or another. Where and how to direct one's rage is the drama's unanswerable, theological question.
At face value, Victoryis as crude as any hostage drama, with its gun waving and binding of the victim — though certainly no cruder than the flaming tire necklaces that were part of South Africa's proletarian revenge against alleged collaborators with its former white-skinned rulers, or the AIDS epidemic that Mandela couldn't rein in.
Adding muscle to the play's raw bones are three performances of ravishing subtlety, under Stephen Sachs' thoughtful and loving direction. The beauty in Higgins' performance lies not so much in Lionel's lines as in his flickering expressions, the lumbering gait, the heavy eyes as he watches, painfully, two thieves of the new South Africa under his own roof. The performance is neither sanctimonious nor particularly wry. It's a portrait, with some lingering crackles of voltage from an exhausted and despondent man. Kajese plays Vicky as a lithe elf, suffering her own agony of remorse. Jean-Baptiste's athletic Freddie brings an undertow of humor stemming from a blend of indignation and desperation. And Travis Gale Lewis' realistic library setting counters the play's melodramatic contrivances with verisimilitude.
Nelson Mandela's release from South African incarceration in 1990 came at a heady time in many corners of the globe for the triumph of ideas of social justice and human dignity over forces of tyranny and oppression. At the very time Mandela was ascending in South Africa, "democracy" was similarly blazing across Eastern Europe: Throngs took to the streets chanting "Yelt-sin, Yelt-sin, Yelt-sin"— their champion advocating for the end of Soviet communism in the heart of Moscow, its very cradle. Within the prior decade, Vaclav Havel's Velvet Revolution had shattered communism's iron grip on Czechoslovakia, and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, reuniting two Germanys — one oppressed and oppressive, the other free and colorful. Around the world, prison doors were swinging open, freedom was on the march.
Whatever that means.
One gets from Fugard's short play, as from a flash of lightning, a feeling that the guns of all these revolutions that occurred over the past 20 to 30 years may have been aimed at the wrong targets. You don't create opportunity just by changing the skin color of people who sit in parliaments and congresses and presidential palaces — you create opportunity by providing the hope for it. Victory is a drama about the end of hope, and that's a remarkable statement, coming from Fugard.
VICTORY | By ATHOL FUGARD | At the FOUNTAIN THEATRE, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hlywd. | Through March 9 | (323) 663-1525 or www.fountaintheatre.com