Athol@86: A celebration of Athol Fugard at the Market

In celebration of the 86th birthday of legendary playwright Athol Fugard, the Market Theatre will present the Athol@86 Season from 4 May to 15 July 2018. Creative Feel spoke to Artistic Director of the Market Theatre, James Ngcobo about the season and the two plays that he has chosen: The Train Driver (4 May to 3 June) and Nongogo (15 June to 15 July).

Fugard@86
James Ngcobo PHOTO Brett Rubin

     James Ngcobo has served as artistic director for the Market Theatre for the past five years, curating works that have seen an evolution of the space. But, he says, ‘I am very pragmatic about the fact that you can’t satisfy everyone. You need to be an artistic director who has a very clear vision that you can defend at any time, and that’s what I’ve done for five years and it’s what I’m going to carry on doing for another five years.
     ‘I love the idea of having an eclectic mix in the theatre. I say to my team all the time that we never know what works until we put it on. If you worry that it’s not going to work, you become a safe theatre, you do only what is done. There are things that I’ve done at the Market Theatre that I’ll never do again, there are things that I’ve done at the Market that I want to do more of.’
     With Athol Fugard turning 86 this year, ‘in my view, there isn’t a theatre that should celebrate that milestone but the Market,’ says Ngcobo, ‘Athol Fugard is tied to the hip with the Market Theatre.
     ‘I always say that Athol Fugard is one of the most beautiful literary giants. When you go through Fugard, for me it’s like opening a pop-up book. You keep going and another thing pops up, but the most important thing that pops up is the truth of this country. He’s always put on paper, with honesty, the people of this country.

In my view, there isn’t a theatre that should celebrate that milestone but the Market

     ‘When you read Boesman and Lena for example, at face value you judge it and you go, “it’s about bergies living on the street.” But it’s a love story, it’s about two people and when life was dealing out cards, they got that card there in the streets. Sometimes Boesman says to Lena: “fuck off” but what he’s saying is “hug me, hold me” – he doesn’t have the faculty to be warm.’
     So for Athol@86, Ngcobo says, ‘I had to sit and think of two plays that could marry each other nicely; plays that articulated his apt hand at being able to write about black life and white life in this country.’ Thus, Nongogo (1959) and The Train Driver (2010) were chosen.
     Athol Fugard’s Nongogo is a reflective piece of theatre and has a long history which is part of the tapestry of South Africa. It is set in the 1950s, a vibrant yet turbulent time in the history of the country. It takes place in a shebeen in the township that is run by a shebeen queen known as Queenie. The show has a beautiful hint of romance that never gets realised at the end. Queenie falls for Johnny, a travelling salesman who somehow works his way past her protective shell, and coaxes her into confiding her long-buried secrets to him.
     Ngcobo will be directing Nongogo – not for the first time. ‘I did Nongogo before I become artistic director of the Market Theatre and then I brought it to the Market Theatre. It’s an Athol Fugard, like Boesman and Lena, that is not done a lot. I love the ones that are not done a lot – I love the others too, but they are staged more frequently.’

He’s always put on paper, with honesty, the people of this country

      Fugard described his play The Train Driver as, for himself, the most important he has ever written. Fugard’s inspiration came from the horrific story of a black woman who, clutching her three children, killed herself and them by stepping in front of a train in the Cape Flats. Dramatically, however, the focus in the play is on the traumatised Afrikaner train-driver, Roelf, who feels morally responsible for a suicide similar to the one the play is based on. So he goes to a desolate squatter camp, where the nameless dead are buried, to seek the grave of the woman who threw herself on to the tracks. His sole companion is a poor black gravedigger, Simon, whose shack he shares and to whom he unburdens his troubled conscience.
     For this season, The Train Driver will be directed by Charmaine Weir-Smith, with John Kani playing Simon and Dawid Minnaar playing Roelf respectively.
     ‘The directors we choose for the Market need to become the extension of the Market Theatre’s vision, people who are in love with theatre as I am, and as passionate about theatre,’ says Ngcobo.
     ‘The second I stopped reading The Train Driver, I thought Charmaine needed to direct it. She’s got such a love for text, for people’s stories… she’s mad, she’s absolutely mad, she’s got a lovely madness, she’s bubbly. And why wouldn’t you get someone like that to direct at the Market?’
     Ngcobo has some other incredible works planned for the rest of the year, including Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love, which will be directed by Janice Honeyman, with Kate Liquorish playing the lead; a Ugandan play – a first for the Market Theatre; as well as a series of short pieces on the Gautrain, bringing the immediacy of theatre to the people.

Athol 86: A celebration of Athol Fugard at the Market with James Ngcobo
An incredible, powerful, eternal journey with John Kani
A uniquely human perspective with Charmaine Weir-Smith