We in the theater are prone to exaggeration. A good play gets called brilliant, a so-so performance gets called a disaster, and a minor incident becomes an epic crisis. But even knowing this tendency, I feel no hesitation in sharing with you what director Gordon Edelstein said at the first rehearsal for The Road to Mecca. “Athol Fugard,” he stated, “is a playwright whose work genuinely changed the world.” Honestly, that sounds pretty accurate to me.
We often think of political playwrights as those who write angry screeds and twist them uncomfortably into drama, leaving the audience to be lectured at for a couple of hours by characters who are mere mouthpieces for the dramatist. Or perhaps we think of political plays as epics, taking on a wide swath of characters and events to squeeze as much as possible onto the stage in one evening. But Athol Fugard defies these trends. Yes, he writes about his native South Africa, and most of his work takes place against the backdrop of apartheid with characters facing racial bias, segregation, and the AIDS epidemic. But rather than yell at the audience or try to put all of his views on stage at one time, he has slowly built up a body of work that is both fearless in its politics and stunning in its emotional impact.
The Road to Mecca is a perfect example of how Athol puts big questions on stage through a small canvas. This play has only three characters, yet it is able to speak to themes of the individual versus the community, freedom of expression, the indignities of growing older, and so much more. While some of his work (including Master Harold…and the boys, which we revived back in 2003) is autobiographical, this particular play is based on a real woman whom Athol himself never met. Helen Martins was a widow living in the region known as the Karoo, and she had come into conflict with the community around her, who didn’t approve of the strange sculptures she had begun creating both inside and outside her house. Helen’s home was surrounded by camels, pilgrims, owls – anything that came into her mind and out through her hands. Mostly isolated from the neighbors around her, Helen did have one friend, a young woman. Athol never spoke to Helen herself but did meet this friend, and it was a photo of the two women that inspired him to write The Road to Mecca. What was their relationship? What made this one young woman the only person unafraid to be close to the outcast Helen? What led Helen to create what would become known as “Owl House”?
In The Road to Mecca, Athol poses so many questions that lead to beautiful moments on stage. Through only Helen, Elsa (her young friend), and the Reverend Marius (the conformist who was originally played by Athol himself), he is able to bring out ideas that are so much bigger than the three people before us. It’s this subtle and human approach that, to me, is the reason that Athol’s work has had such an impact. When we recognize ourselves in the characters on stage, we can’t help but think about the larger implications of the society in which they live.
Since Athol first began his career as a playwright in South Africa more than 40 years ago, apartheid has been abolished, both audiences and performers have been allowed to become racially mixed, and a theater has been named for the man who started it all. So much has changed, yet the plays themselves remain timeless. I’m so proud that we are bringing The Road to Mecca to Broadway for the first time, especially with the wonderful cast of Rosemary Harris, Carla Gugino and Jim Dale, all of whom I consider to be members of the Roundabout family. And to have this play as a part of the celebration of Athol’s 80th birthday in 2012 makes it particularly special. All plays are meant to entertain, but Athol’s body of work does much more than that. His impact has been felt so far beyond the theater that I don’t know if we’ll ever find a way to praise his work enough. In other words, “genuinely changed the world” sounds great to me.
The Road to Mecca is playing at the American Airlines Theatre December 16, 2011 through March 4, 2012. For more information, click here.
2011-2012 Season, From Todd Haimes, The Road to Mecca