December 16, 2018

Theater, apartheid and a director’s Jewish roots

“I’ve been very fortunate through most of my adult life to be able to have earned a living in the art form that I love,” Simon Levy, producing director of the Fountain Theatre in East Hollywood, commented during a recent interview. “And I’ve been in a very fortunate position because I happen to have chosen not-for-profit theater, or intimate theater. There’s a purity in that work that is outside commercial concerns and that attracts me.”

Ever since he joined the Fountain in 1993, Levy has won innumerable awards for his work as a director/playwright/producer. He is currently directing the theater’s seventh production of a play by South African writer Athol Fugard, this one titled “The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek.”

Fugard, who is a white South African, is noted for his plays depicting the plight of black South Africans under apartheid, and he continues to write about his country’s struggles in the post-apartheid era. “The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek” (playing through Dec. 14) spans both periods.

The first act of the play, which was inspired by a real-life South African artist, depicts Nukain Mabuza (Thomas Silcott), an old, itinerant black farm worker near the end of his life, who surveys the rocks on which he has painted colorful flowers over the years. He now faces the largest rock on his employer’s property, and conquers it by symbolically painting his life story — which was lived under apartheid — with the help of a youngster called Bokkie (Philip Solomon). 

With that gesture, this outsider artist is claiming his manhood and, Levy said, is dealing with his need to be seen in some way. “This final ‘canvas’ that he has to attack — what does that need to say now about who he is at this particular time in his life? I think, as an artist, we’re always struggling with that issue. When people look at me, or they look at the art that I create, who are they seeing?”

The play’s second act takes place 20 years later, post-apartheid. Bokkie, now a grown man whose real name is Jonathan Sejake (Gilbert Glenn Brown), returns to the farm to restore his old friend’s signature work. In the process, he confronts the Afrikaner woman who owns the land (Suanne Spoke).

Levy said that Fugard, through his examination of a single outsider artist, is tackling broad philosophical and sociological issues, such as white versus black, or the haves versus the have-nots. These are issues very much aligned with the mission of the Fountain, which Levy says gives voice to the various communities of Los Angeles. “We tend to pick socially and politically conscious plays, plays that address specific constituencies, whether those are social or political or ethnic.”

That mission is also closely tied to Levy’s own sense of his Jewish identity. “I do believe that, because of the Diaspora, because we’ve always been the outsider for thousands of years, because it wasn’t until 1948 that we had a homeland, we’ve always been the observer. And I feel like there’s something in my DNA. Is it a Jewish DNA? Is it a cultural kind of thing? I don’t know, but I do think that we tend to be observers, and we want to see truth for what it is. We’re always questioning.”

Levy said his exposure to his heritage was very complicated. His mother was a teenager in England during World War II, the daughter of Orthodox parents. She joined the British Army and became, Levy said, a very independent young woman. 

“When my mom, after the war, eventually got pregnant out of wedlock, her father disowned her, to the point where he even tried to forbid her from seeing her mother. So she left England with me in tow. She had a sister who was living in San Francisco, and she ended up joining her sister. In the process of that, she let go of a lot of her Judaism, in protest against her father,” Levy said.

He said he spent years living with his aunt and her Protestant husband, and, therefore, celebrating Christmas. “But when I would be with my mom,” he recalled, “even though we would still have Christmas, all the Chanukah tchotchkes would be out. So I never grew up with the High Holy Days — not directly — but indirectly, whenever it was the particular holiday, those tchotchkes would be all over the house.

“Even though she didn’t raise me religious, and even though we didn’t strictly follow all the High Holy Days, I grew up in an environment of being proud that I am a Jew, [with a sense] that we are different, in a certain kind of way, and that we have a responsibility to the world, that it is our job to take care of the world and take care of other people,” Levy said.

In keeping with that sentiment, Levy expressed his hopes for what audiences might take away from his latest directorial effort. “I want audiences to wake up to, or reawaken to, this issue of the other — to keep our hearts and our minds open about people who are not like us — and to wrap our arms around those people and say, ‘It’s OK.’ At the end of the day, do no harm, just do no harm. Don’t hurt other people.”

For more information or to purchase tickets, click here.