Athol Fugard Keeps A Promise With New Play

Athol Fugard outside The Fountain Theatre in 2012.

Athol Fugard outside The Fountain Theatre in 2012.

Anyone who follows the Fountain Theatre knows about our longtime artistic friendship and association with Athol Fugard. The internationally acclaimed South African playwright considers The Fountain Theatre his artistic home in the United States. The Fountain has launched 6 premieres of Athol’s new plays since 2000. Fugard’s newest play, receiving its world premiere later this month at The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, is his his first written entirely in Afrikaans. Fugard’s plays have often been translated into Afrikaans but Die Laaste Karretjiegraf (“The Last Buggy Grave”) is his first play written in the native language of his beloved and beleaguered homeland.

Fugard reveals that he had promised his late mother that he would write at least one Afrikaans play in his lifetime and that he would highlight the plight of the Karretjie people (“buggy people”) of her beloved Karoo.

South Africa's "buggy people" in The Karoo.

South Africa’s “buggy people” in The Karoo.

“The Karoo’s buggy people are the gypsies of South Africa” he says. “In this country of ours where both blacks and whites make such harsh demands on the land, one must remember, the car people are the direct descendants of the original landowners, the Khoi and the San.”

Is he nervous about the upcoming opening night? “The premiere of a new piece is always a time for fear and trembling,” he laughs with just a touch of seriousness. 

“But this one is perhaps different, because ultimately I make a promise to my mother, Elizabeth Magdalena Potgieter, to write a play in her language.”

Fugard explains how he came to his subject. “A major incentive was the anthropologist Riana Steyn. Her master’s dissertation on the car people inspired me to write the play. “

“Earlier, the buggy people’s lives were hard, but they were free. They could move from place to place. The whole bloody Karoo was theirs. Now they have nothing. “

Fugard's "The Blue iris" at the Fountain Theatre (US Premiere, 2012).

Fugard’s “The Blue Iris” at the Fountain Theatre (US Premiere, 2012).

In the new play, Koot and Sarah meet after many years on a farm in the Karoo at the grave of Koot’s mother, Mieta Ackerman. During Koot’s years of roaming he was the informal spokesman for a team of Karretjie sheepshearers at the Brug outspan. He has just been released from prison where he served time for murdering his second wife. During his detention in the local prison, Ouma Mieta looked after his children. Sarah is of Afrikaner descent and has in the meantime completed her dissertation in Anthropology on the subject of Karretjie children.

Although Afrikaans is both Sarah and Koot’s mother tongue they are worlds apart; they are, however, connected by shared experiences of pain, guilt, remorse, love and ultimately hope. Die Laaste Karretjiegraf is a story about the Karretjie People and a tribute to the heritage of the direct descendants of South Africa’s first inhabitants. This is a way of life which, for various reasons, has come to an end and has, in more ways than one, been laid to rest with Ouma Mieta in her grave.

Many of Athol’s plays are, in part, autobiographical. Is there a piece of himself in this newest work?

“The last buggy grave in the Karoo. This is me. ” says Fugard.

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