Lore Watterson is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Creative Feel Magazine
Whatever you do, cross the Nelson Mandela Bridge into Newtown during May and June to join in the celebration of the life and work of our great South African playwright Athol Fugard. James Ngcobo, the artistic director of the Market Theatre, is paying homage to him with the Athol@86 season, celebrating his eighty-sixth birthday with two wonderful productions – Nongogo (1959) and The Train Driver (2010).
Nongogo was written almost 60 years ago in 1959 during Fugard’s very early years of writing, producing, acting and organising ‘a multiracial theatre’ in which he and his colleague, black South African actor Zakes Mokae, performed.
Nongogo is a reflective piece of theatre and has a long history that 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.
The other Athol@86 production is The Train Driver, which is considered to be an ‘allegorical meditation on white South Africans’ collective guilt about apartheid’.
Fugard himself feels that it is his most important play, ‘I think all of my writing life led up to the writing of The Train Driver because it deals with my own inherited blindness and guilt and all of what being a white South African in South Africa during those apartheid years meant.’
Here, John Kani is Simon the gravedigger in the desolate squatter camp where the nameless dead are buried and he interacts with Roelf (played by Dawid Minnaar) – The Train Driver.
It was very special to talk to John about Athol, about their long shared theatre years and more importantly about their life-long special friendship – ‘he is closer to me than a brother’. Together they made history and put South African plays out into the world and Port Elizabeth on the map.
As Fugard said, ‘as fascinated as I was by words on paper, it was matched by my fascination with words in people’s mouths. The spoken word. And that is the world of theatre.’
Athol@86 is just that – theatre not to be missed.