There are so many depths and layers when it comes to portraying a character created by seminal South African playwright Athol Fugard.
Wendy vanden Heuvel knows this all too well.
“All of his characters have layers and layers, and to go deeply into all the layers so it’s not just one note is challenging,” said vanden Heuvel. “He writes such full human beings and allows things to unfold.”
vanden Heuvel’s first opportunity to delve deeply into a Fugard play is taking place now. “A Lesson From Aloes,” which won the 1980 best play of the year award from the New York Drama Critics Circle, is beginning its run at Z Below in San Francisco for the next three weeks, presented by Weathervane Productions. The show, running through June 29th, explores deeply a conflicted time in South Africa’s history of apartheid, the 1960s. The aloe plant, considered one of South Africa’s most powerful and resilient symbols, are tended by the character Piet, an Afrikaner who loves them. His wife Gladys thinks they are ugly. And the Black activist Steve concurs with Gladys.
The viewpoints of these three characters in regards to aloes are blatant metaphors for how they see South Africa and apartheid, the practice of racial separation that began in 1948 and lasted through the early 1990s.
vanden Heuvel plays Gladys, a woman who is a constant state of nihilism when it comes to how she views the present and future of South Africa. Her beliefs are influenced heavily by the political climate of the time – boycotts and shutdowns, and a forceful quieting of the resistance by the powers that be. Yet her husband, despite evidence to the contrary, still holds onto hope, hope reflected in the aloes he tends.
“All of the passion and purpose in his life he uses to dive in to take care of his aloes,” said vanden Heuvel. “My character is much more nihilistic. She doesn’t believe any of it and doesn’t believe Blacks and Whites can live together. She’s not racist, but she doesn’t believe that it can ever work.”
One of the most exciting things about performing in a Fugard play is how he writes characters that are constructed so deeply beneath the surface.
“There are lots of secrets in Fugard’s plays, and all of his characters have secrets,” said vanden Heuvel. “They don’t come out until the end of the play, and there are all these kinds of things that are personal, and things that share the depth of who they are. “
There are deep challenges in playing characters with so much depth, and vanden Heuvel certainly has her work cut out for her. But on a macro level, a play that is loaded with political symbolism takes on a different type of urgency in the modern era, especially when so much theatre with a political bent reflects the unrest that exists in the United States at present.
“We are talking about politics every day, and are definitely taking deep dives into specifics,” said vanden Heuvel. “There are lines in the play that feel like they are coming out about today, those analogies are very present. Apartheid was a violent system where people were tortured, and children were kept away from their parents. We talk politics a lot in the rehearsal room, and we also talk politics in the dressing room.
“The play is really timely based on what we are living in politically. We are talking about corrupt government systems and clear dictatorships, and this play is a cautionary tale. But we can still protest here, and as long as we keep conversations active and alive, we can continue to challenge. Even though it’s set in 1963, it’s very vital today.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Weathervane Productions presents “A Lesson From Aloes”
Written by Athol Fugard
Directed by Timothy Near
Through June 29th
470 Florida Street, San Francisco, CA
Tickets range from $10 – $50
For tickets, call (415) 626-0453 or visit www.alessonfromaloes.com