In apartheid South Africa, baring bodies and souls
WATERTOWN — Athol Fugard’s voice was one of the loudest in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and even as the country struggles in its post-apartheid democratic era, he is still writing and being heard at the age of 85.
Fugard, a playwright, novelist, actor and director, was the first actor to appear onstage alongside a black actor with his play “The Blood Knot.” His masterwork “Master Harold … and the Boys” is a much-honored play and had a stirring presentation at Gloucester Stage in 2012. His novel “Tsotsi” was made into an Oscar-winning film.
His 1972 play “Statements After an Arrest Under the Morality Act” is based on a real-life 1966 case, about two lovers – a black man and a white woman – torn apart by the country’s racial segregation laws.
In 1966 apartheid South Africa, relationships across the color bar were a criminal offense. Against that backdrop Fugard introduces us to two characters he simply lists as A White Woman (Eve Kagan) and A Colored Man (Michael Ofori).
We will come to know them by name later, but by describing them as such, Fugard extrapolates the couple’s situation into one confronting entire races of white or colored people at the time – because any one of them could have found themselves in a similar situation. “Statements” currently being presented by the New Repertory Theatre and the Boston Center for American Performance through March 3 is a harrowing, intense production.
The lights are dim throughout – the action takes place in the darkened back room of the library where the woman named Frieda Joubert works – and both characters are nude throughout almost the entire 70 minutes of the production. It must be difficult to concentrate and not be a little self-conscious, but both actors handle it with aplomb.
Frieda is a few years older than Errol Philander, who is married and a principal in a school in a nearby black township. He first met Frieda when he came to the library to borrow a book to help him in one of his correspondence courses.
There is an air of paranoia throughout, with good reason. Discovery of their illegal adultery will bring shame, the possible loss of jobs and positions, with jail almost the least of their problems.
Along the way, they will discuss their love and their hopes for the future but they will also explore issues of pride, the shame of a relationship almost fully conducted under the cover of darkness, and the fear that one of them might be the person to betray the other.
They will run the gamut of emotions and exhibit fear and bravery, boldness and caution.
Ultimately, a neighbor of the library reports coming and goings in the building at odd hours, prompting a policeman (Tim Spears) to photograph them from the neighbor’s yard before he breaks into the building and arrests the couple under the Immorality Act.
Spear’s policeman is chilling in the matter-of-fact-way he presents his testimony in court on what he observed as he clinically and graphically details the offense in question. The actual statements of the participants defending and explaining their actions are part of the dialogue.
New Rep Artistic Director Jim Petosa ‘s direction allows the pacing to be understandably deliberate; he wants to let Fugard and the players set the stage and explain themselves and their relationship before the jarring moment that will change their lives forever.
The Fugard work is the second in what the New Rep is calling its “Statements of Survival Series” held in the Black Box Theater in the Mosesian Center.
In writing “Statements,” Fugard let the truth of the situation speak for him. Nothing further needed to be said.
The New Repertory Theatre and Boston Center for American Performance production of Athol Fugard’s “Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act.” Directed by Jim Petosa. In the Black Box Theater of the Mosesian Center for the Arts through March 3. Newrep.org.