Athol Fugard’s notebooks are filled with handwriting, the seeds that have come to represent a body of work that won him the Special Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2011. It’s a habit that developed in the 1960s, his way of recording anything significant that happened to him — "sensual fragments, incidents, quotations, speculations" — in black ink on white paper with a fountain pen.
Fugard’s latest play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, which premiered in New York last year and opens in Cape Town on August 23, was born in similar fashion.
Required to produce something for the off-Broadway Signature Theatre in New York, Fugard discovered a fairly well-worked-out first act of the play he had written in 2010 and stashed in his "bottom drawer". It was a simpler version of the current plot, a statement about the artist and the little boy who turned out to be his helper, detailing none of the issues that surface now. Fugard dug out the draft and started to live with it, realising there was a follow-up.
He had heard about Nukain Mabuza, "a guy in the Transvaal who had done something very extraordinary with a little koppie on a farm", and it was enough to spark his interest. He emphasises that Painted Rocks is inspired by the life of a real man, but is not an attempt at biographical capturing.
"I didn’t want any information about the actual Mabuza. I can’t write if I’ve got any limits; I have to be completely free," explains Fugard. "I knew that he had been on a farm, and had been supplied with paint by a farmer and his wife, and there was a little helper. The early version of Painted Rocks didn’t have the farmer’s wife in it. Once I had introduced her, a whole potential dynamic to the play was created."
Why keep his name, then? "I could have chosen a different name but in as much as there are illustrations of the real Mabuza’s work on set, I felt I had to acknowledge him as well," says Fugard.
And what attracted him the most — the paintings or the story? "It’s always the story," he says. "I’m a storyteller, not a politician, not a political playwright. I tell stories about people, and I try to be as truthful a witness as possible."
Similar to Helen Martins in Fugard’s The Road to Mecca, Mabuza is an outsider artist, part of a group of people categorised by their lack of formal training in their artistic discipline, who are often socially or culturally marginalised and undereducated, but who have created something very beautiful.
Outsider art focuses on a very specific moment in the life of any creative talent, when they have a sense that the end has come, Fugard explains.
"That’s what Mecca is about — Martins (a role created by the late Yvonne Bryceland), looks at what’s she going to do with her life when ‘the pictures don’t come any more’, as she puts it.
And that’s exactly what Mabuza says: ‘I’ve got no flowers left inside me so what do I do on this big rock?’" The answer comes during the course of the play.
Since Bryceland’s untimely death in 1992, Fugard says, there have been "good experiences and very frustrating ones" in casting actresses for his premieres.
"Here in SA, I bitterly regret that Paula [Fourie, his co-director] and I never had a chance to see Anna-Mart van der Merwe in People are Living There at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. The reviews I’ve seen about her performance are quite astounding. She must have had a wonderful director ..." (It was André Odendaal.) "I hope I get a chance to work with her again."
The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek is presented by Eric Abraham, featuring Anna-Mart van der Merwe ( Begeerte , Binnelanders ), Tshamano Sebe (The Fugard Theatre’s Master Harold and the Boys ) and Sne Dladla (The Fugard Theatre’s Orpheus in Africa , District Six — Kanala ). Set design is by Saul Radomsky, costume design by Birrie le Roux, lighting design by Mannie Manim and sound design by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder.
Fugard’s work is studied, admired and performed as much in SA as it is in the US. As a resident playwright and éminence grise at the Signature Theatre, Fugard praises its founder, Jim Houghton, for his amazing achievement in establishing a complex with three stages of different sizes where there’s always a seat to be bought for $25.
"And this is Broadway, where seats are being sold for $800 to $1000. Because of that, the Signature Theatre audience has a very significant percentage of young people and elderly pensioners. It’s a wonderful policy."
Sadly, stomach cancer caused Houghton’s death at 57 last week.
After this season of Painted Rocks, Fugard and Fourie return to New York to stage a revival of Master Harold and the Boys.
"It’s one of my most successful plays," says Fugard, who omits to mention that it was one of five of his works nominated for a Tony Award. "It’s had an incredible life, as has Blood Knot, which I also revived recently in New York. I look back at them with some surprise, you know. How the hell did I get this right? I’m amazed, actually, when I think about it."
* The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek runs at the Fugard Studio Theatre from August 23 until September 24. Tickets from R140 to R180 are available through the Fugard Theatre box office on (021) 461-4554 or at Computicket and 0861 915 8000.