Playwrights > Athol Fugard discussion

Crossing boundaries: the genesis of the township plays


Iain Fisher:
There is an excellent in depth article on Fugard by Dennis Walder "Crossing boundaries: the genesis of the township plays" in Twentieth Century Literature,  Winter, 1993.  by Dennis Walder

Here are some selections from it (and the full article is available on-line):

As I have suggested elsewhere, the idea of "bearing witness," which Fugard has used to describe his motivation since 1968, and which has subsequently been echoed by many critics (myself included) to legitimate his work, should not be accepted without question. Certainly it seems an appropriate idea to invoke as a humanist version of the familiar Christian notion of offering oneself as testimony to the truth of what has been seen or experienced in extreme situations. The writer "as witness" is a type who "increasingly appears in the annals of twentieth-century literature," representing the writer's "solidarity with the doomed, the deprived, the victimized, the under-privileged" (Heaney). But who really should bear witness in situations of degradation, suffering, even death? Shouldn't the victims speak for themselves? And if they cannot, who can legitimately speak for them? In other words, whose voices are heard, whose have been silenced? And how does the passage of time change the answers to these questions?

The Blood Knot which first proposed a kind of theatre involving performers crossing the racial divide to fulfill their given roles as characters whose destinies are intimately, indissolubly linked. Its successful local production involved Fugard and Mokae in repeatedly breaking the law to live, travel, and perform together (Richards), challenging the status quo by showing the fundamental conflict between a free theatre and apartheid. Moreover, following the success of The Blood Knot in the Rehearsal Room at Dorkay House, Union Artists sponsored a series of important productions of modern plays with black casts before multiracial audiences, including an extraordinary Waiting for Godot directed by Fugard with Cornelius Mabaso and David Phetoe, which Fugard thought more important in its effect even than the achievement of The Blood Knot (Notebooks).

But Fugard's collaborative work across the deep divisions of South African society began before The Blood Knot, with the first of his "township" plays, No-Good Friday. What I am calling the township plays have their common inspiration in the everyday life of urban black people, and were created and performed in increasingly close partnership with their black amateur casts- there is only one white role, and that is a small one, in the first play. Set out in the order of their initial production, these plays fall naturally into two groups, representing two distinct phases in Fugard's involvement across racial boundaries: the "Sophiatown" plays, No-Good Friday (1958) and Nogogo (1959), first performed in the Bantu Men's Social Centre, Johannesburg, by members of the so-called African Theatre Workshop that Athol and Sheila Fugard had organized in the vast, multiracial ghetto; and the "New Brighton" plays, including The Coat, The Last Bus (1969) and Friday's Bread on Monday (1970), improvised by the Serpent Players of New Brighton, followed by Sizwe Bansi Is Dead (1972) and its companion piece, The Island (1973), both first performed by their co-creators and well-known Serpent Players, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, in Brian Astbury's Space Theatre, Cape Town.
The Sophiatown phase lasted two years (1957-1959), and was a limited exercise in collaborative theatre, brought to an end as much by the enforced removal of that city-within-a-city as by the departure or exile abroad of its main participants, including the Fugards. The New Brighton phase extended over a decade (1963-1973), and involved, to begin with, a group of amateurs from the township working on classic Western drama from Antigone to The Caucasian Chalk Circle under Fugard's informed and expert eye. It was succeeded by more experimental playmaking using material drawn from their own lives as pressures upon the group increased under the post-Sharpeville clampdown in the Eastern Cape; and, finally, the joint creation by Fugard, Kani, and Ntshona of drama of an unprecedented intensity and impact, in Sizwe Bansi and The Island. Fugard's name is commonly attached to all the township plays, although the improvisations with Serpent Players are usually described as such, and the original title pages of the last two describe them as "devised by" their three co-creators, who also share the rights and royalties. There is an important sense in which all these plays belong less to Fugard than to the black performers whose lives they draw on, and who first helped create them, in rough or makeshift, often appalling, conditions. His other work, from The Blood Knot to Playland, is obviously more his own in theme and approach, even when he has cast black actors from the townships in their first production.

In earlier interviews Fugard's initiative, direction, and control are simply accepted: "You see, Athol taught us that we need our art, not propaganda," as Kani summed up in 1974. "Athol reminds us that the story is enough and the message will take care of itself" (Kani and Ntshona "Separate Fables"). But the near-total hegemony of the white minority created by apartheid has meant that white liberals and other dissidents such as Fugard are part of the structures of domination they oppose, although a distinction must be made between their various forms of protest, and the willing submission to the system of most whites over the years. It is understandable that they should be criticized.

Within two months the New Brighton group- who named themselves Serpent Players after their first performing space, the old Port Elizabeth snake pit- had held their first reading under Fugard's direction of what was to become a wildly popular township version of Machiavelli's Mandragola, The Cure, which played to one of the first multiracial audiences in Port Elizabeth. Improvisation was the key to Serpent Players' practice; their aim at first simply to entertain. They went on to produce cheaply mounted township versions of classic European drama in venues such as St. Stephen's Hall, without adequate lighting, seats, props, or backstage facilities, rehearsing beforehand in places which allowed them to escape apartheid restrictions- such as an about-to-be-demolished "coloured" school. From the start, the Players (including Fugard), their relatives, and friends came under surveillance, and in December 1964, days before the opening of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Azdak (Welcome Duru), a schoolteacher, was "savagely assaulted by the police in his home (one a.m.) in front of his family, then dragged away to jail crying for mercy" (Notebooks). Fugard took over, and the performance proceeded. But within months three more members were arrested: Simon Hanabe, Sipho "Sharkie" Mguqulwa, and Norman Ntshinga- whose role as Haemon had to be taken over by newcomer John Kani.

You can read the full article here:;col1



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