Jewish Journal

Fugard at the Museum of Tolerance

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Jul. 10, 1997 at 8:00 pm

Fugard at the Museum of Tolerance

By Naomi Pfefferman, Senior Writer

If you missed Athol Fugard's "Valley Song" at the Taper, here's a chance to see two plays by the pre-eminent South African playwright at the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance.

(The plays are reprises of productions by the Synthaxis Theatre Company, in association with another group, at the Lankershim Arts Center in North Hollywood.)

On July 16, you can see the heartbreaking "My Children! My Africa!" which tells the story of two students and a black township teacher torn apart by apartheid. On July 17, you can see "My Life," Fugard's post-apartheid play, in which five young, diverse women bond in a Johannesburg gym.

It was something of a coup for the unassuming Synthaxis Theatre Company to land the American première of "My Life." Fugard, after all, is known for being protective of his plays and hesitant about performances without himself as actor or director.

That did not stop Synthaxis producer Mary Mann from telephoning a mentor, Dr. Herbert Shore of USC, for help. Shore, the first ever to produce a Fugard play outside South Africa, telephoned his friend, who promptly granted the rights for both plays.

Perhaps Fugard was convinced because the Synthaxis is a company devoted to issues of diversity, women and youth; it tours schools and avoids oversized sets and the proverbial fourth wall. Directors Lee Isenberg ("My Children! My Africa!") and award-winning Peter Grego ("My Life"), nevertheless, were cautious as they put the plays on the stage.

They read every book and article they could find on Fugard; Grego, for his part, noted that the playwright had composed "My Life" from the testimonies of real women. Thus, he kept the casting as "true" as possible by selecting actresses whose experiences matched those of their fictional characters.

During auditions, he had 50 performers speak of a time when they were the victims of prejudice. Later, he had cast members dramatize these experiences for each other (one woman had been harassed by the police) and "let the relationships really in the room [transfer] to the stage."

Meanwhile, the directors were e-mailing and twice met with grizzled, ebullient Fugard, who was in town to do "Valley Song." Isenberg, who has taught at a Jewish day school and in the inner city, approached the author with a list of questions. Is the teacher in "My Children! My Africa!" actually you? she wanted to know. The author nodded; the character is torn between two worlds and is his only tragic hero.

Fugard, the first South African to put blacks and whites together onstage, "also told us the plays were perfect for Los Angeles because we are a culturally diverse city, and we are all trying to get along," Grego says.

Tickets for both plays cost $8. For more information, call (310) 553-9036.

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