It-s a long way from Johannesburg to Los Angeles--10,364 miles to be exact. But in the 46 years since Athol Fugard-s first play, No-Good Friday, debuted at the Bantu Men-s Social Centre, an even greater distance has been traveled. When No-Good Friday was written-10 years after the now-defunct policy of apartheid had been enacted-the play could not be put on with a racially mixed cast.
Fugard-s early plays like No-Good Friday were mainly portraits of the people who suffered under South Africa-s imposed segregation. But with his 1961 play, Blood Knot, Harold Athol Lannigan Fugard, directly addressed the issue of apartheid-which led the government to ban the play and revoke his passport for four years. Blood Knot featured two brothers, one black and one white, and while it never mentioned the word apartheid, it defiantly showed the wide chasm that existed between South Africa-s two races.
One of the two characters in Athol Fugard-s newest play, Exits and Entrances, which is receiving its World Premiere here in Los Angeles, speaks about a play he-s writing-a play, not surprisingly, about two brothers. This character-s name is simply -The Playwright.-
Like many of his dramas, Exits and Entrances is an autobiographical work that recreates an incident from Fugard-s own life-in this case, his brief friendship with Andr- Huguenet, a famous Afrikaan stage actor who was once known as -the Olivier of South Africa.-
Exits and Entrances takes place in the late -50-s and -60-s, during which time Fugard was an aspiring playwright and Huguenet was in essence, the Norma Desmond of Afrikaan theater. He dreams of recreating the success of his youth-when he toured the world and performed for royalty-but he-s also aware that his grandiose acting style is rapidly becoming as dated as black-and-white, silent films.
Besides a few nostalgic monologues by the Fugard character, most of the play consists of two interactions between him and Huguenet. One takes place backstage before one of the actor-s performances of Oedipus Rex where Fugard is an apprentice in the local theater; and the other scene takes place five years later, when Fugard comes to see Huguenet-s farewell performance in Bridget Boland's The Prisoner.
These two scenes have a My Dinner With Andr- feel, as they are short on action and long on conversation. This Andr- recounts long theatrical tales and tosses off tart backstage bon-mots; but eventually their dialogue becomes heated, as the actor advises the young playwright to forget writing gritty social allegories and instead write drawing room comedies.
Up until this point, Fugard-s two-hander seems merely a mash note to the South African stage, but with this argument the play opens up to much more serious, and probing themes. The title-s -exits- and -entrances-, cease to refer simply to actors, and begin to encompass political parties, generational gaps, and most of all, personal ambitions and hopes-what the play refers to as: -the hard labor of dreams.-
Exits and Entrances is Fugard-s 31st play. The work is brief and it has a casual, anecdotal feel, much like other late works like Eugene O-Neill-s Hughie or Horton Foote-s The Carpetbagger-s Children. But Exits and Entrances, despite its intimacy, still has the expansive emotions and ideas of Fugard-s best work.
The play is also helped by the two local actors who have created these roles: Morlan Higgins and William Dennis Hurley. While they both occasionally slip in and out of their Dutch-accented Queen-s English, neither lose sight of the inner fire that stokes both of these characters- passions. Higgins naturally steals the show with his many-layered performance of the flamboyant Andr-, but Hurley, in a quieter fashion, shows equal depth in his tender but stubborn portrait of Fugard the playwright as a young man.
Exits and Entrances continues at the Fountain Theatre through September 26.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW