Athol Fugard at Long Wharf

Humming Along

World-renowned playwright Athol Fugard writes from his head, his heart and his homeland, South Africa. Since the late 1950s, he’s stormed the world’s stages, from Cape Town to London to New York.

He’s been around. He knows what’s out there. And he keeps coming back to New Haven.

In the past five years, he’s world- or U.S.-premiered four of his plays at Long Wharf Theatre, including the current effort, The Shadow of the Hummingbird. Artistic director Gordon Edelstein, who’s directed each salvo, has a “very special relationship” with Fugard, according to the theatre’s head of marketing and communications Steven Scarpa. As Fugard puts it, “I trust him and he trusts me.”

Fugard doesn’t, however, put much faith in computers, or even typewriters, which were around when he started putting words to paper in the 1950s as a twentysomething. In longhand, using fountain pen and paper, he says he spends about nine months writing any given play, completing a trio of drafts before he considers it finished.

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His road to becoming a playwright wasn’t an obvious one. Instead of completing a college degree, Fugard earned the less official but perhaps more tangible credentials acquired from backpacking through Africa, and from signing onto a merchant ship as a deck hand. Later, he served as a clerk in a “Native Commissioner’s Court,” where he daily witnessed the injustices of apartheid. Protest of South Africa’s racial inequities spilled forth from his pen and his mouth, provoking a backlash from the government, which in the late 1960s revoked his passport and surveilled his activities.

Fugard meanwhile developed a habit of placing strong women in his works, possibly inspired by his mother, an Afrikaans woman who instilled in him the strong sense of justice that would motivate him and propel his career onward and upward: between 1975 and 1986, his writing and directing garnered six Tony Award nominations, four of them for best play. In 2011, he received a much-deserved lifetime achievement Tony.

But that wasn’t a capstone so much as a milestone, because Fugard’s still going, and he’s doing it at Long Wharf right now. Since March 26, he’s been starring in The Shadow of the Hummingbird, a play he wrote about an afternoon in the life of a grandson, Boba, and his grandfather, Oupa. Charm and beauty are captured in this brief cross-generational encounter that reawakens a sense of wonder in the older man as it imparts wisdom to the young boy. The role of the grandson Boba is played by twins Aidan and Dermot McMillan, fifth-graders from Middletown who take different turns in the spotlight. The last time Fugard graced the stage as a player was before the McMillans were born.

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Oupa’s world revolves around the birds he loves to watch. His feathered friends provide pleasure and awe, the value of which he wants to impart to his grandson, Boba, before the end of his life. With a gentle yet philosophical edge, the two communicate, often seriously, often playfully, seeming to implicitly understand that their time together is precious: affection is never far from the surface.

Dramaturg Elizabeth Nearing calls the process behind the show “great and amazing.” She’s found it “fun to watch it evolve every day, layer by layer, revealing many pieces of soul, a personal story that opens little windows into himself.” To her, Hummingbird is about love, and about what you leave behind for others.

Fugard seems to be right there with her. “Love is the only emotion,” he insists, a remarkable thing to say after all the hatred he’s witnessed and fought against. Hummingbird, of course, is no great protest play, but it is proof that Fugard can still pack emotional wallop, even when the scale is small and fleeting.

The Shadow of the Hummingbird
by Athol Fugard
Long Wharf Theatre, Stage II – 222 Sargent Dr, New Haven (map)
Now staging through Sunday, April 27
(203) 787-4282 | $40-70

Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by T. Charles Erickson.

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