Apartheid and succulents might seem like odd bedfellows, but centuries of racial oppression and violence can make metaphors reverberate. Athol Fugard’s 1980 three-character drama, A Lesson From Aloes, now playing through June 29th at San Francisco’s Z Below in the Mission, provides a searing view into how politics and race can inject suspicion, fear and madness into our lives. As a piece of theatre, it’s a must see, relating not just to South Africa and its horrible history of apartheid, but to the same deeply ingrained racial injustice which plagues our country.
Perhaps no playwright since Strindberg or O’Neill has mastered the craft and art of turning the single-set play, with a minimum of characters, into a pressure-cooker. In the two-act A Lesson From Aloes, Piet Bezuidenhout, a retired Afrikaner bus driver who now devotes his time to collecting and tending aloes, and his wife Gladys (played by Victor Talmadge and Wendy vanden Heuvel respectively) live in a simple home on the edge of Port Elizabeth, a mixed-race community where many of Fugard’s works transpire. They’ve prepared an outdoor buffet for guests, Steve Roberts and his family. Roberts, a black friend of Piet’s, recently released from jail, was imprisoned for anti-apartheid activities with Piet and others. Barred from working in his profession as a brick-layer, Steve decides to obtain a one-way exit pass for the family and emigrate to the UK. Arriving late, Steve arrives solo with a score to settle, as the friendless Piet is suspected of being an informer—a belief shared by Gladys, who suffers her own trauma. When the Security Branch seized Steve, they also searched the Bezuidenhout residence, rifling through and seizing Gladys’ diary. In Glady’s mind, her ensuing breakdown and hospitalization result directly from his culpability in the crimes of the state.
An aloe that Piet tends to serves as a critical metaphor in the play. Tough and spiny, able to survive in the parched South African veldt just as people do, Piet cannot fit its identity into the known species. People’s racial make-up was clearly demarcated under apartheid, just as all species of the aloe genus were. But this aloe’s identity, like those of the three characters in A Lesson From Aloes, eludes easy identification. Like these prickly plants, Steve, Piet and Gladys each have their own roots—background and memories—which they draw upon to survive the rough times, with decidedly different trajectories and outcomes. But in the end—especially in the tumultuous second act when Steve arrives—the central conflict remains. Did Piet really inform on Steve? Is Piet the cause of Gladys’ madness? And what will become of Steve and family in exile?
Director Near has shaped a compelling show, with excellent performances from all three actors. Scenic design by Deb O fashions a comfy modest bungalow terrace with assorted patio furniture and plenty of aloes, a partially visible bedroom stage-left, and a scrim behind a cinder-block wall, showing the slowly changing afternoon and evening skies, marred only by a few wrinkled in the scrim and some rather abrupt lighting changes. Talmadge gives a controlled performance as a man who has invested himself in a cause, given his all, only to come out at the end as a suspect and a failure. Vanden Heuvel’s turn as the neurotic and scarred Gladys (shades of Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night ), like Talmadge and Roberts, reveals layers of psychological complexity, years of doubt and perseverance turned, in her case, into something like personal nihilism. And Roberts provides a jolt in more ways than one when he arrives: the subaltern come to confront his past, before leaving for a new future. One senses that the three actors are still finding the moments in and rhythms of the production: from my point of view, they are just inches away from providing Bay Area audiences with one of the most enthralling and intense shows of the year. This is a show that cannot be missed as theatre that matters, a production that bravely explores the human heart, on issues of race, prejudice, violence and oppression that matter now just as much as ever—if not more.
Performances continue at Z Below through June 29.