Activism at the heart of their art

Athol Fugard and Eve Ensler, recipients of honorary Tonys, share a passionate conviction that the roles of artist and activist are inseparable, with the real-life credentials to prove it.

Says Ensler, “Theater is the place where taboos get broken and truths get told.”

To Fugard, “Any significant work of art says something about the society it comes out of. It starts with being diagnostic, and sometimes prognostic…. A play of mine with three characters has a cast of thousands.”

Long before Nelson Mandela appeared on American radar, Fugard’s voice in “Boesman and Lena” and “Blood Knot” shook our conscience by exposing the personal realities of South African apartheid. In turn, “let’s face it, there’d be nothing to me if it hadn’t been for the support of the American theater community.” On Broadway he’s gone four-for-four in best play Tony nominations, with two performing wins for “my brother,” the late Zakes Mokae.

Fugard “found my voice” in Johannesburg (where, interestingly, Ensler’s new play will premiere this summer). Theater, he firmly believes, contributed to his nation’s transformation by “creating a climate in which people realized one could talk about issues, and change opinions and attitudes.”

Ensler says she began to learn the indivisibility of creativity and social engagement when she found herself discussing menopause with a friend.

“She just started talking about her vagina, saying that it was dried up, dead, finished…. I was first appalled, and then I realized I had no idea what women felt about their vaginas. So I just started asking people.”

The “shocking, funny, disturbing” findings became “The Vagina Monologues,” which eventually inspired V-Day, now in its 14th year. “I didn’t know,” she insists, “the scope, the grand impact of violence against women on the world.”

Feb. 14 marked 5,000 performances and the raising of $80 million for worldwide grassroots campaigns, “all because women and men have seized the play and the moment, wherever they are.”

When Fugard claims, “We, in a country that tried to divide people on the basis of color, got together and fought it in ‘Master Harold …,’ and did it again and again,” he’s living testament to Ensler’s credo: “Believe that you as an artist and an individual can make a difference. It sounds very simplistic, but in fact, that’s how the world changes.”

– Bob Verini

THE TONY AWARDS
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