Athol Fugard has written plays about the ravages of Apartheid, about life in South Africa amid the AIDS epidemic, and of clashes of conscience, class and art.
But the South African dramatist's latest work, "The Shadow of the Hummingbird", is a different kind of writing: more intimate, meditative and perhaps his most personal play of all centering on an elderly writer trying to reconnect to the magic of life.
The work receives its world premiere at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre (previews begin Wednesday, March 26 and opens April 2). The production also marks the first time Fugard, who turns 82 in June, has acted on stage in more than 15 years.
The work is a short two-character play with Fugard playing the character of a writer being visited in his Southern California home by his hooky-playing 10-year-old grandson, Bobo. (Twins Aiden and Dermot McMillan alternate in the role.)
Fugard lived in San Diego for a time to be near his daughter and grandson, who is about the same age as the boy in the play. So can audiences project the character of the grandfather, named "Oupa," as Fugard?
"It's me but it's not me," says the writer playfully during an interview done between rehearsals at the theater. "But he's a grumpy old pisspot of an old man."
Fugard, whose theatrical career spans 56 years, shows no signs of slowing down with a flurry of plays and productions in recent years in New Haven, New York, California, and his native South Africa where a theater is named after him.
At this chapter of his career and life, he remains a thoroughly engaging and engaged storyteller, one who seduces with charm, humor and deceptive simplicity. Only later do you realize that he has subtly illuminated a life lesson, whether it's about race or even human relations.
Long Wharf, which presented the American premieres of "Sizwe Banzi Is Dead" and "The Island" in the '70s, has more recently presented three of the writer's latest works: "Coming Home," "Have You Seen Us" and "The Train Driver," all staged by the theater's artistic director Gordon Edelstein, who is also directing Fugard here.
In the '80s, Yale Repertory Theatre lured the writer across town when his "A Lesson from Aloes," "Master Harold…and the Boys" and other plays premiered or were revived there. But when Edelstein took over more than a dozen years ago at Long Wharf, he wooed Fugard back and established a personal and personable relationship with the writer.
But "Hummingbird" was a particular challenge for both men.
Needed Something More
"Let me cut to the chase," says Fugard. "What Gordon and I realized was there was no way I could extend the play. The play I had written was really not a full evening as I had written it. Then one day Paula had a stunning idea."
Fugard is referring to Paula Fourie, 28, a South African writer — and now his companion — who crafted a prologue to the play that has the character of the old man entering his studio with great agitation looking for an important entry from a long-ago journal that he can't quite find.
"Paula had found this entry [in a 50-year-old plus journal] about a shadow that I had completely forgotten about. So [the character] goes through a collection of his old notebooks, reading random pages, and it all builds up to his discovery of this one passage that I had written when I was first starting out — and that seamlessly leads into the play."
Fugard says his character in the play has lost touch with "the magic of the world" and this encounter with his young grandson "was like a bridge from my decrepitude, one I could cross and reconnect with life."
The shadow of a hummingbird was something that happened in his own life when he was writing one day in San Diego. (He has since returned to South Africa.)
"I was sitting in my chair in my little room where I used to write. I had a hummingbird feeder on the patio where the room opened on to but I couldn't see the feeder from my comfortable chair. Then one day, sitting there, I saw a fluttering shadow. It took me a moment to register what it was and when I realized it was the hummingbird I became inordinately fascinated by it"
He didn't understand why the sight — the bird and its shadow would return every morning — was so compelling until he realized it evoked writing from a much earlier part of his life.
"What he's searching for [with the boy] is to reconnect. The world has become so rational, so scientific. We have all these cell phones and computers, which are all amazing. But where is the magic?
"What he wants to do, which is impossible, is to return to the innocence of a child. He asks his grandson to remember when he held an orange, this fragrant, glowing thing, or an egg, for the first time. When did you first see the moon? I can remember my daughter as a baby laying on her back in the pram and there was a full moon in the sky and she saw it and she couldn't contain her excitement, reaching up for it as if to take it out of the sky."
Is he trying to present a different type of lesson to audiences? "And to myself," he says. "And that is to rediscover the magic of life. It's a very gentle play because it's about love. The key that unlocks the magic and mystery of life is love. Yes, yes, I feel I've come full circle in a way."
And the future for the writer who now makes his home with Fourie in New Bethesda in South Africa? (He says he has reached an amicable separation from his wife of more than 50 years.)
"It feels so right returning to South Africa," he says. "I have no sense of putting the final period to this story of my life as a writer. But if I am given time there will be more work, but it may be more introspective. It will be quiet writing."
Fourie isn't so sure.
"Paula asks," he says "Am I going to re-engage [with the political and social dynamic of South Africa]? "
It's already happening. Last year he wrote a play with Riana Steyn called "Die Laaste Karretjiegraf" ("The Last Donkey Cart Grave") written in his native Afrikaan language, fulfilling a promise he made to his mother who was Afrikaan, an ethnic group descended from Dutch settlers. His father was English.
The play is about a small subculture of mixed race Karretjie people who live with no permanent home in the Karoo desert, going from farm to farm as sheep shearers, traveling in donkey carts.
And writing about life in a post-Nelson Mandella South Africa?
"My instinct as a storyteller and my need to be a storyteller," he says will at some point grab me by the throat."