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Athol Fugard finds truth and reconciliation in ‘The Train Driver’

For Athol Fugard, the playwright’s pilgrimage can be a long, tortuous slog. But the trek is less daunting and more companionable if that road happens to pass through L.A.'s Fountain Theatre.

Since 2000, when the intimate Hollywood playhouse staged the Los Angeles premiere of Fugard’s “The Road to Mecca,” the 78-year-old South African playwright has regarded the Fountain as something of an artistic home away from home. It will be again starting Saturday, when the Fountain will host the U.S. premiere of Fugard’s latest work, “The Train Driver,” a succinct, one-act, two-character drama that deals with Fugard’s pivotal theme of the last two decades: South Africa’s quest to shake off the ghosts of apartheid’s dehumanizing legacy.

“People come to the Fountain Theatre because they’ve got hearts that are working and they’ve got heads that are working,” Fugard said during a brief L.A. stopover last month that included a read-through of the new play. “They use the Fountain Theatre because it puts them in touch with the world that they’re living in.”

Or, in the case of “The Train Driver,” in touch with an old, troubled world that refuses to go away.

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Like other Fugard plays, “The Train Driver” was triggered by real-life events. On Dec. 8, 2000, a black woman named Pumla Lolwana and her three children were struck and killed by a train while walking on railway tracks on the outskirts of Cape Town. Fugard’s fictional work revolves around the made-up character of Roelf “Rudolf” Visagie, the ill-fated train’s white driver, portrayed by Morlan Higgins.

As the play begins, the deeply traumatized engineer has come, as if dragged by unassuaged spirits, to a black township graveyard in search of the final resting place of the woman he accidentally killed. There he encounters Simon Hanabe (Adolphus Ward), an old African gravedigger who initially regards Roelf with a wariness that the white man initially repays with undisguised condescension and contempt.

But gradually the men’s tense exchanges lead toward a partial understanding, as Simon helps steer Roelf toward a dramatic attempt at placating his demons of shame and guilt.

Fugard said the tragedy of Pumla Lolwana and her children had haunted him since he first read about it in newspaper accounts. But it wasn’t until he reached his 70th birthday and was sojourning in Southern California, where he has been teaching theater at UC San Diego, that he knew it was time to start writing the play that he calls the most significant of his half-century career.

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“This is for me the whole; it’s my truth and reconciliation,” Fugard said, alluding to the South African commission charged with investigating human rights violations and granting amnesty for abuses that took place during the apartheid era. “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.”

Stephen Sachs, the Fountain’s artistic co-director, said his theater’s relationship with Fugard began when the playwright attended the Fountain’s production of “The Road to Mecca” in 2000 and has deepened over the years. “I kept telling him: If you ever are looking for an intimate, safe and nurturing place to develop a new work — away from the larger institutions — I offer the Fountain as your home,” Sachs said.

Then one day a few years ago, Sachs received an e-mail from Fugard with a file attachment of his latest play, “Exits and Entrances,” and an invitation to Sachs to direct it, which he did. The Fountain subsequently has produced the U.S. premieres of Fugard’s “Victory” and “The Train Driver,” and the West Coast premiere of another Fugard play, “Coming Home,” all directed by Sachs.

Sachs was one of the first people Fugard asked to read “The Train Driver,” and in an e-mail back to the playwright, the director wrote that the work presents “a kind of summation, a dramatic expression” of who Fugard is and of his “lifelong internal struggle” to exhume “the bones of the nameless black dead” and claim these characters as his own.

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“I think the play is about awakening,” Sachs said. “It’s a story about transformation, and ‘was blind but now I see.’ And I think that’s the journey for both” the train driver and the gravedigger.

Like Sachs, the two actors cast in “The Train Driver” have collaborated with Fugard before and earned his admiration and trust. Higgins starred in “Exits and Entrances” as Andre, a self-important actor playing the role of Oedipus, whose gradual coming to grips with his closeted homosexuality parallels political shifts in South African society in the late 1950s and early ‘60s. Ward performed in “Coming Home” in summer 2009.

Higgins recalls his astonishment when Sachs first approached him about tackling the part of Andre in “Exits and Entrances.”

“I remember saying on the phone, ‘No, you mean Athol Fugard? There can’t be two of those, but it can’t be him,’” Higgins said with a laugh. “And I got involved with that play, and that character is still splashing around in the waters of my soul. I would happily still be playing that play, night after night.”

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Like many South Africans, Fugard believes that the early promise of apartheid’s collapse and the messianic expectations that greeted Nelson Mandela’s election as president are far from fulfilled today. Although black-white relations are improving, particularly among younger South Africans, he said, the gap between the country’s economic haves and have-nots is widening.

He’s dismissive of the predictions made by some that South Africa’s hosting of soccer’s World Cup tournament last summer might act as a social balm. “Kicking a bloody leather pudding around a field is going to be the solution to our problems in South Africa? Christ Almighty!”

What Fugard does still believe in is the power of theater, the mecca that arises from the primal ritual of live, shared storytelling. “You can sit in a … cinema, man, and you can put 100 deaf people, blind people, you can have nobody at all, and that movie will still go on rolling itself out in front of nothing,” he said. “Television, the idiot box, reduces us to sponges soaking it up.”

But even if someday a man-made disaster reduces the world to rubble, Fugard said, the survivors will gather around a campfire, someone will tell a story and animate it, and humanity’s ancient art form will return.

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“Theater,” Fugard said, “is for keeps.”

reed.johnson@latimes.com


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