Playwright Athol Fugard is best known for his award-winning dramas about the tragedy of racism and apartheid in his native South Africa. Now, his first play set in the United States has premiered in the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut. “Have You Seen Us?” stars actor Sam Waterston.
Time Magazine has called Athol Fugard “the greatest active playwright in the English-speaking world”. His award-winning dramas include "Master Harold and the Boys" and "A Lesson from Aloes". The film "Tsotsi", adapted from a novel by Fugard won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
Fugard says language fascinates him. "Not so much language on the page, as what happens to language in people’s mouths. How we speak. How we corrupt it. How we use it to hide away secrets. How we use it sometimes to try and tell our biggest secrets."
He says his obsession with the drama of language came from listening to his mother, an almost illiterate Africkaner. "What she did with the English language in her mouth to this day still delights me in terms of what I remember of it. She couldn’t speak it properly, but it somehow flowered in her mouth if you know what I mean."
And Fugard says he often discovers new meaning in his dramatic dialogue as he hears actors speak his words.
"Two years ago, Christmas eve, when I was standing on this very spot.."
Fugard: "Right at the beginning Sam Waterston comes onstage and delivers a monolgue.."
"My visit to the sandwich shop for my usual order of turkey on whole wheat with sprouts and tomato and a cup of coffee had once again ended with the waitress, Adela, winning the ugly little game we used to play when we were alone in the shop which was very often the case of trading insults and offensive jibes with each other."
Fugard: "And what he did…I had never seen that potential in that role. And you know what I very often say….I use it because it is my own personal experience that sometimes the playwright is the last person to know what his own play is really about."
"An overweight, uneducated Mexican waitress had once again humiliated me. Henry Parsons, Phd! "
Actor Sam Waterston plays Henry Parsons, a character that couldn’t be more different from the ruthless lawyer he plays on TV’s Law and Order. Waterston somewhat reluctantly agreed to sit down and talk about the role before his final dress rehearsal. "What you’re doing today is a little bit like interviewing a woman on the table in the delivery room about the nature of childbirth."
So he tries not to dwell on the idea that the play is a world premiere. "Because you don’t want to load the event with too much extraneous significance, but I am aware that at the very least Athol will look at this and say “hmm this is more or less what I intended” or “oh my Lord I didn’t mean that at all”..or something in between."
Waterston’s character is a weak, alcoholic expatriot South African. He spends Christmas eve in a nondescript little sandwich shop in southern California with a Mexican waitress and an elderly Jewish couple.
Actress Liza Colon-Zayas plays the Mexican waitress. "When we first meet Adela she greets Sam Waterston’s character with calling him a ‘viejo sucio borracho perdido’ which is a lost dirty old drunk."
Colon-Zayas says at first she didn’t understand how painful the play is. That night Waterston’s character comes to terms with fact that he’s been a racist his whole life. His most recent targets have been the waitress and the elderly Jewish couple.
"He goes on his knees and he asks for forgiveness." Playwright Athol Fugard. "And the Jewish man says, “of course I forgive you. And ultimately also goes on to say “Then God will also forgive you”."
Actress Liza Colon-Zayas says it was during the rehearsal process, speaking Fugard’s language, that the play’s meaning emerged. "It was such a work in progress, that I didn’t realize how..what a hard pill it would be to swallow. And I think without going that dark, that moment of clarity – that choice to be humble enough to ask for forgiveness, its not so powerful."
But it is, she says because of Fugard’s words. Spoken, living language is why Athol Fugard says he writes plays.