The first Athol Fugard play that I ever saw was years ago at Arena Stage, “Sizwe Bonzi is Dead”; it was very powerful, particularly during years of apartheid in South Africa. The next Fugard play that I saw was “My Children! My Africa!”, last year at the Studio Theatre, another play about race relations, this time focusing on the first integrated team competing in a nation-wide academic contest, the male black student, the female white student, and the black academic coach. It was extraordinary.
This year, Studio started with another Fugard play, “The Road to Mecca”. Set in apartheid South Africa, it is only tangentially a race relations play. This is a play, factually based, set in an remote Afrikaans village, about an aging woman, Helen Martins, a widow who had grown increasingly isolated from her church and community, spending her time creating “art”, sculptures which she placed outside her house, and various forms of light (candles, mirrors, etc) inside her house. The local Reformed Church minister is trying to convince her that she should move to an old folks’ home, that she can no longer live alone. A young friend who lives 800 miles away, a 31 year old teacher who has her own problems, visits after receiving a “why am I still living?” letter from Martins. Both the minister and the teacher want Martins to make her own mind up – the minister wants her to make her own mind up to move into the home; the teacher wants her to make her mind up to stay where she is. Martins is understandably confused.
This is a play of extraordinary verbal emotion (sort of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” in tone), requiring extraordinary intensity. The three actors were excellent (Tana Hicken, Holly Twyford and Martin Rayner), holding the audience until the conclusion (and this is not a play where you know exactly where it is going).
It is based on a true story. There was a Helen Marins. Her home and 500 outdoor sculptures are a national monument in Nieu Bethesda, S.A. She did have a young teacher friend in Capetown, although I doubt that the intensity of this play was anything but the product of Fugard’s fine mind. The real end was tragic. Growing more and more isolated, Marins swallowed lye and ground glass at the age of 78. She was found still alive, transported to a hospital, and died after a three day interval that I cannot even imagine.
“The Road to Mecca”. Definitely worth seeing. Also, for information about Helen Martins, see http://africanhistory.about.com/od/biography/p/OwlHouse/htm.