by Steve LaRocque
With Maytag Virgin sadly receding in the rear-view mirror (a lot of people liked that show, for very good reasons), we move on to Quotidian’s second offering in the 2015-16 season, Athol Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes, directed by Laura Giannarelli and featuring David Dubov, Laura Russell, and Addison Switzer. I have seen several Fugard plays, and every time I have I felt that I wanted to know a lot more about the South African society that is so integral to Fugard’s work.
So, when we were lining up people to lead the pre-show dramaturg sessions that we offer to our subscribers, I signed up for A Lesson from Aloes. I figured that if I undertook an earnest effort to assimilate South African history and culture, I could wrap my arms around the whole thing in, say, three months, tops. Wrong. I have been reading history, watching Fugard on YouTube, downloading and devouring articles, maps and pictures, and I still feel I have gotten nowhere. It’s like trying to drink from an overachieving water fountain, getting a faceful, swearing you’re never going to do it again – and going back for more. I’m not done, not nearly, but I do have a lot of material.
Let’s start with the big beast: the Republic of South Africa, the name we give to the conflation of the Cape Colony, the Transvaal, the Karoo, Natal, the homelands, the townships and much more – an immense country, much of it beautiful, some of it as harsh as any place on the planet, with a history that takes us back to the earliest traces of our species on the planet. A country, in many ways, like our own United States – but, I would maintain, a lot more complicated.
Let’s compare: how many capitals do we have? Well, one, of course; doesn’t everybody? South Africa has three.
How about official languages? We have one – English – and a de facto second language, Spanish. How many does South Africa have? Eleven. Ethnic groups? Don’t even start. To simplify things, let’s say that South Africa has whites, of English and Afrikaner (Dutch) origin; mixed-race people who speak Afrikaans (in South African terminology: Colored); Indians (from India, or their descendants); and native Africans, descended from a multitude of tribes, some more or less intact, some gone.
In A Lesson from Aloes, each of Fugard’s three main characters is from one of the major groups: an Afrikaner, an Englishwoman, and a Colored man.
Let’s note here which group Fugard identifies himself with. He has stated many times that he considers himself an Afrikaner – a white man whose native language is that variant of Dutch called Afrikaans and whose forebears go back to the 1600’s. And his characters – the main ones, anyway – are also Afrikaners. Almost without exception, he says every principal male character in his plays has an Afrikaans name. As he puts it, “I am an Afrikaner writing in the English language.” (In case you’re wondering, he does speak perfectly fluent Afrikaans, which prompted a friend of his to joke that Fugard translates his plays before he writes them.)
A Lesson from Aloes provides us with a perfect example. At the top of the play we meet Piet Bezuidenhout (David Dubov), who defines himself thus: “Origin: Dutch. The first one arrived in 1695.”
In case you’re wondering, that’s pretty close to the beginning of the European presence in what we now call South Africa.
The first Europeans – Portuguese – sailed around the Cape of Good Hope at the end of the 15th century, and the Dutch first showed up in 1652. They farmed on land grants in the area now known as Stellenbosch, then pushed north and east, opening up frontiers, encountering resistance and fighting wars with the native tribes who had occupied the land for many, many centuries, gradually taking over with their European weaponry.
Does this sound familiar?
The Europeans who settled South Africa did a lot of the same things that the Europeans who settled the American colonies did – including enslaving people. But the Dutch didn’t just enslave Africans – Indians and Malaysians got caught up in it, too. When the British showed up in the 1700’s and began to assert themselves, they pushed the Dutch to abandon slavery, which finally went away officially in the 1830’s; but, of course, racial inequality persisted to this day, with the whites at the top of the heap – though which whites, English or Dutch, made out better depends on whose story you listen to. That’s Piet, the Afrikaner; more about him later.
Piet’s wife, Gladys (Laura Russell), is English – her maiden name was Gladys Adams – but she was born in South Africa and has lived her entire life there.
Gladys has a deeply ambivalent attitude about the country: “I may have been born here, but I will never call it [home],” and she draws a clear distinction between her origins and Piet’s, lumping him with “you Afrikaners.”
But for all her Englishness, Gladys has never actually been to England, though she refers to it dreamily and persistently, conjuring up idyllic images of a Somerset landscape and contrasting it with her present harsh surroundings.
But there’s a deep-seated irony in Glayds’s situation: at the time in which the play is set (1963), South Africa had declared itself a republic and had withdrawn from the Commonwealth, that worldwide association of 53 countries that have ties to Great Britain (usually from having been part of the British Empire, but that fact isn’t too widely trumpeted). The concept of the Commonwealth shored up the allegiance of many a British expat and their children born overseas, like Gladys. However, in 1963 South Africa, an Englishwoman’s psychological and emotional ties to Queen and country were pretty tenuous.
Finally, there is Steve (Addison Switzer), Piet’s long-time friend and the guest for the evening. Steve is Colored, which, in the South African context, means that he is descended from the indigenous peoples who intermarried with Dutch settlers in the 1700’s, mostly in the southern coastal part of South Africa known as The Cape. (Port Elizabeth, where Fugard has set many of his plays, is in the Eastern Cape.)
Being Colored is a little better than being African (black), but not much. As one contemporary observer puts it, ” … the system was designed in such a way that you had White people at the very top … Black people at the bottom … and Coloureds and Indians as the buffer. This created an ugly precedent, one that cast Coloured people as ‘inbetweeners’, never good enough to be the boss, but a little more privileged than the bottom-rung servant. Despite the oppression of the … government, things were not as rough for Coloured and Indian folk as they were for Black folk and so if you kept your head low and did not cause too much trouble with ideas of revolution, you barely got by.” (Gushwell Brooks, Daily Maverick, 30 Jul 2015)
Unfortunately, however, Steve did cause too much trouble: he became politically active, got arrested, broke parole (to put it in American terms), got rearrested and re-incarcerated, and has been dealt with as only the brutal Special Police can do.
Recently released, Steve has decided to emigrate with his family to England, under an arrangement that allows no possibility of return – a one-way ticket, with no way back.
Steve’s situation shines a harsh light on a central issue of the play: faced with the prospect of living in a brutally unjust society that is nevertheless your home, do you choose to stay or leave? This issue preoccupied Fugard’s own mother, an Afrikaner married to an improvident English South African who left her with the challenge of making ends meet. She employed black servants and was acutely aware of the injustice that pervaded the society of her day, yet she chose to remain and do what she could to lead a normal, moral life. Fugard has often cited his mother as the principal influence on his view of the world in general and South Africa in particular.
So there we have our characters, each from a major segment of South African society, each with intense personal preoccupations, each with a different approach to the issue of staying or going. Plenty to work with here.
And we haven’t even gotten into the politics, the police tactics, the poetry, the rumors about what Piet did – or the aloes. Next time.
A LESSON FROM ALOES April 29 – May 29, 2016 at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda. Tickets are available now