In August, Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback was lucky enough to arrange a phone interview with Athol Fugard to talk about his new play, Coming Home, which opens the Wilma season. Although he is best known for his plays chronicling the pernicious effects of apartheid on his native South Africa, Fugard has remained active as a playwright: he has written at least six plays since the Wilma produced My Children! My Africa! in 2007.
Coming Home to New Bethesda
Coming Home is unique among Fugard’s plays as a sequel to an earlier play. Valley Song was the first play Fugard wrote after Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress party was voted into office, replacing the white apartheid government, and Valley Song reflects the mood of the time. “It was a moment of incredible euphoria in South Africa with great hope for the future, and I was not immune to that,” Fugard says. “I thought, you know, ‘My God, I’m going to actually see it happen in my lifetime’.”
Valley Song is perhaps Fugard’s most wholeheartedly optimistic work. The play is set in New Bethesda, a small town where Fugard owns a home, “no more than about 40 to 50 miles from the village where I was born.” Since buying the house, Fugard has set several of his plays in New Bethesda, beginning with The Road to Mecca, nearly 25 years ago.
Fugard wrote himself into Valley Song as The Author, and played the role in early productions. The other characters bear the names of real people from New Bethesda; One of these was Oupa (“Grandpa”), the caretaker on Fugard’s property. “He was my first and my closest friend in New Bethesda. When I bought my first property there, I inherited Oupa! Because he had been looking after that land and planting on it and harvesting the fruit and the vegetables for years, years, years before I even put my eyes, set my eyes on it. And…I had to come to terms with him. In a kind of a way I always felt that as long as he was alive that land would be his as much as it would be mine.”
The other character is Veronica, Oupa’s granddaughter, who he’s raised since she was a child. She was the real inspiration for the play. “Veronica was a real young girl who I knew and who dreamt about going to the city and I realized she could be an embodiment of the hope that we all had. And so Valley Song is about that. Valley Song is about the fact that the world, our world had changed, taken a dramatic one hundred and eighty degree turn in its identity and was going to try and forge a new identity for itself. For me, Veronica was an embodiment of that belief that the miracle had happened” and his belief that “we would be able to hold on to it and be bold and go forward.” Valley Song was an international hit: “it was a beautiful experience watching audiences respond to that hope.”
So why did Fugard decide to re-visit Veronica and Oupa more than a decade later? “Democracies have a lot to learn as we discovered,” he says. “it did definitely make strong strides towards being the democracy we had dreamt of but with time a debit side to the balance sheet began to emerge.”
Like her namesake, the real Veronica left New Bethesda for the city, hoping to become a singer. Fugard doesn’t know what happened to her, but she and Oupa stuck with him as symbols of those early, euphoric days. “I made people hope with Valley Song. And it bothered me that, in terms of my country, that message of hope—unconditional hope—was no longer valid. So to get the record straight I had to bring Veronica back to the village and write a play called Coming Home.”
How did the design process begin?
I felt pretty strongly that we had to have this very, very realistic home where the action is…At the same time I feel that Fugard’s writing is so incredibly poetic that I felt that there also needed to be something in the set to reflect that. And I also felt that it was important knowing that this home would probably be quite grim, depressing, that there was some sort of visual counter to that because as sad as the story is, there is definitely hope, and love and a real light within it. So I also looked at painters and sculptors for inspiration.
How did you land on Wolf Kahn for inspiration?
Wolf Kahn is one of my favorite painters, but surprisingly I’ve never used him before in any design. I felt that his sense of being able to distill nature down to the most beautiful single image in a very powerful way really worked for this piece.
And the more I started researching the Karoo and getting familiar with what that place really feels like and looks like, the more it seemed like the right direction to go -- especially people’s descriptions of it being so powerful and feeling that you’re very much connected to nature when you’re in that region.
So I showed some of his paintings and pastels to Blanka. Blanka actually found this really wonderful pastel by him [“A Slight Dip in the Landscape”] that we really used as our inspiration