Well, it must be my week for well-written but anguished, despairing plays, first with the west coast debut of The End of the Tour at the Road and now with the opening of the newest work by Athol Fugard, one of the world’s most important artistic and political voices of the last few decades.
Fugard’s Victory, now in its U.S. premiere at the Fountain, is a tragic statement of our times—especially since it was based on the playwright’s personal experience. In the dark days of apartheid in South Africa, Fugard was a bitterly outspoken activist who defied the ANC by writing politically damning plays and then breaking the law to collaborate with black actors to present such notable works as Sizwe Banzi is Dead and My Children! My Africa! under the very nose of the government. Jailed for many years in his native land for his dissidence and continuously fearing for his life and that of his family, the one thing Fugard never gave into was hopelessness, always finding a delicate humanity inherent in his characters while perpetually insisting that there could one day be an end to the horrors and a future of equality for South Africa.
With Nelson Mandela’s election as that country’s president after being imprisoned for many years for his rebel ways, Fugard’s dream seemed for a time to be becoming a reality. During that period he wrote sweet, lovely plays commemorating the new dawn of his beloved native land and heralding the reconciliatory efforts underway. Since the dumping of the ANC and the end of apartheid in 1994, however, South Africa has unfortunately seen a rapid and enormous increase in violent crime and gang warfare among blacks, who remain living in intense poverty in shantytown ghettos while fearful white citizens have been pushed to live behind protective gates in high-security communities.
In Victory, Morlan Higgins plays Lionel, a retired white schoolteacher living in a small Karoo Village who wakes up in the night to find two young local black teenagers (Tinashe Kajese and Lovensky Jean-Baptiste) ransacking his home. When he realizes Kajese’s character is the daughter of his late beloved housekeeper, a woman he and his late wife treated for many years as though she was a member of their family, his surprise turns to shock and despondency. The gentle, goodhearted Lionel had watched Vicky grow up playing with toys in the same room she and her boyfriend have now trashed, maturing while reading from the same beloved book collection the boy has now urinated on as a declaration of his anger against whites.
“I don't care what you do with me because it is all over,” Lionel tells Freddie, Jean-Baptiste’s character, as the obviously long-troubled kid holds him at gunpoint while Vicky ties him up in a nearby easy chair. “I've had enough, thrown in the towel,” he says. “I just don't care any more.”
Under the sharp directorial skills of the Fountain’s co-artistic director Stephen Sachs, whom Fugard has trusted before with the world premiere of his brilliant Exits and Entrances and the LA premiere of The Road to Mecca, once again this durable theatre venue has stepped up to the plate bigtime. The design elements, from Travis Gale Lewis’ gloriously detailed set to the precise regional dialects coached by JB Blanc, are exceptional and the acting is first rate—probably why Fugard refers in the program to the Fountain as “his home in America.”
Kajese and Jean-Baptiste are both exceptional as these two bright young people who, one has the sense, will never realize the dream of a better life Fugard worked so hard to champion, and no one could possibly be better playing Lionel than Higgins, who also starred in Exits and Entrances at the Fountain and in all its subsequent productions from New York to Edinburgh. Here again, expressing Lionel’s despondency and sense of defeat with a quiet, palpable nobility and fascinatingly simple choices, Higgins proves himself to be one of our town’s greatest theatrical treasures.
The disparaging thing about Fugard’s Victory is that the great man seems to have given up his lifelong fight. After several burglaries of his own home in South Africa, the last of which involved someone close to him he trusted completely, the playwright moved fulltime to San Diego, the place where he wrote this play. “South Africa is in denial about its problems,” he says, “busy blaming the past while taking no responsibility for the present.” Sound a bit too close to home, folks? Maybe we could demand members of our own current administration, as well as that slimy crop of insincere, glad-handing candidates seeking the Republican Presidential nomination, to check this play out, maybe utilizing a machine to force their greedy eyes open like in A Clockwork Orange.
It’s difficult watching Victory unfold to flight the inference, especially as brutally honest as Fugard has always been in his electrifying writing and as autobiographical as he admits this newest play to be for him, that the always-optimistic and selfless warrior of a writer has now grown to somehow share his latest leading character’s loss of heart. “I used to want to change the world,” the fictional character Lotus Weinstock says in John Cameron Mitchell’s groundbreaking movie Shortbus. “Now I just want to leave the room with a little dignity.”
That Athol Fugard, of all people, has today arrived at such unrelenting pessimism, clearly wondering in Victory if decent white Afrikaners such as he and Lionel will ever again have a place in their home country, is simply heartbreaking—and an eerily fatalistic sign of the times which we all are trying to survive with a modicum of dignity and honor.
Victory plays through Mar. 9 at the Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., Los Angeles CA; for tickets, call 323.663.1525. For more information, visit www.fountaintheatre.com