This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
This past weekend, the Number One movie in America was a film titled District 9, about aliens from outer space who suffer under a sort of intergalactic apartheid policy outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. One can only wonder if Athol Fugard, the most well known South African playwright of the real apartheid era (who now lives here in Southern California) saw District 9 — and if so, what he thought of it.
I wonder about this because District 9's existence (and mainstream success) reflects just how much things have changed in the 15 years since South Africa held its first open elections — not to mention since the 1960's when Fugard risked punishment by the white, Apartheid government for collaborating with black actors to create his early dramas.
With another free election and transfer of power earlier this year and the World Cup coming to South Africa next year, conventional wisdom would seem to suggest that life is improving in that part of the world. But to read or see Athol Fugard's recent plays is to experience a very different view. His latest work, Coming Home, receiving its West Coast Premiere at the Fountain Theatre (like last season's Victory) is a bleak portrait of life in post-Apartheid South Africa.
Coming Home is a first in two respects for Fugard. One, it's his first sequel. Coming Home's main characters, Veronica Jonkers and her Grandfather Abraam Jonkers, first appeared in Fugard's 1995 drama, Valley Song. Whereas Valley Song told the story of Veronica leaving her village to make her way in the big city; the title, Coming Home, pretty much tells you what you need to know. Veronica (played at the Fountain by Deidrie Henry) returns to her village — with a young son.
The play's three scenes unfold in a straightforward fashion — those who haven't seen Valley Song are helped by a good deal of exposition (too much in fact) — as Veronica introduces her boy to the one-room house where she grew up. The son ages, we learn why Veronica has returned and we meet the now deceased Grandpa “Oupa” Jonkers in flashback. All of this is rendered in a gentle, always human, but unsentimental way. Fugard is an expert at sketching fleshed out characters in quick, elegant strokes. Sadly in Coming Home, the sketches never become filled in.
The joy of Fugard's early plays like Sizwe Bansi Is Dead is the way they captured life on stage. Watching these plays today, they still have the freshness of being told a story by someone over a drink at a bar — only suddenly the story jumps to life in front of you. Despite director Stephen Sachs' best efforts, this never happens in Coming Home. Part of the problem may be that Fugard drops the conceit of “The Author” which he used in Valley Song. There, Fugard used the role of the white outsider to introduce us to the Jonkers' world; here in Coming Home, we are simply flies on the wall.
Fugard may believe that the fate suffered by Veronica speaks for itself, making any authorial narration unnecessary. I mentioned Coming Home being Fugard's first sequel, but it is also his first play to mention AIDS. We learn quickly in this new work that AIDS is why Veronica has come home. This is a tragedy — especially if you've seen Valley Song — but Fugard's creaky, old-fashioned dramaturgy in this sequel doesn't deepen our understanding of Veronica's plight. The flashbacks with Grandfather (well-played by Adolphus Ward) reveal little and the machinations of the plot simply click by. Coming Home is a well-intentioned play, but it feels like a TV drama rather than one of Fugard's vivid, poetic portraits. If Fugard was South Africa's chronicler of the Apartheid era, perhaps the country needs a new playwright to dramatize the problems of AIDS and corruption that plague South Africa today.
Athol Fugard's Coming Home runs through August 29 at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Banner image: Thomas Silcott and Deirdrie Henry in Coming Home. Photo: Ed Krieger