Know Your Apartheid History Before Seeing ‘A Lesson from Aloes’

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Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson

If you have not read anything about the plot or Apartheid history behind “A Lesson from Aloes, you will leave Hartford Stage very confused.

I usually like to go into plays blind, without reading anything about it before, so that it won’t influence my opinion and I can interpret the play on my own. But it was a mistake to do that with this play by “Athol Fugard” because it was very hard to follow and understand the context of what was happening. It took me a very long time to figure out the play was even set in South Africa and then once I placed that I finally started to put together it was about Apartheid.

Part of my trouble identifying the setting of the story was subtle inconsistencies in their accents. One minute Randall Newsome sounded theatrically British and then I started to pick up a hint of a Scottish accent. I still don’t really understand where his character is supposed to be from, but the dialogue makes reference to him not being from South Africa. His wife, Gladys (Andrus Nichols), on the other hand sounds pretty steadily British, but she admits she hasn’t been to England besides perhaps a visit and what she sees in a painting at her rehab facility.  She alludes to being from South Africa even though people are more likely to assume she is from England because she is white.

Race plays a major part of the story and is at the crux of the political scene during Apartheid. But the characters dance around it themselves. They touch on it in a dramatically building dinner scene with their friend Steve (Ariyon Bakare) who is moving to England after a government-imposed ban that is forcing him out of the country. Even as the only black South African character, he is polite and reluctant to delve into the complex racial prejudice and segregation that plagues the country during the time period.

Just as the lead male character has a hard time identifying one particular aloe plant, it is hard to fully identify the characters in the story. They are complicated and even by the story’s end, there is a lot left unexplained. The three-actor cast does a good job at peeling away the layers at the core of their backstories, but we never completely get to the roots.

If the play had continued to be Piet talking about aloes and to his seemingly emotionally, vegetative wife, the play would have been a complete bore. But unanswered questions about the pasts of the characters ultimately maintain our intrigue.

Piet’s fixation on aloes could be seen as representative of the pleasantries that distract from having to talk about racial injustice and issues that are uncomfortable.

But the playright, Fugard, writes about the theme of “drought” in his notes about the play just as the aloes Piet collects are resilient to survive through conditions like drought, according to the playbill. Drought doesn’t have to mean a literal lack of water, but can also symbolize the barren social and cultural nature that comes with being denied basic necessities and the need to survive through all that is taken away. Physical survival, social survival, political survival, you name it.

Just as Piet seeks out aloes to bring home, he does try to help black South Africans in the protests resistant the government segregation that put solely white politicians in power. He nurtures the aloes just like he wants to assist people struggling to survive. Maybe he focuses on the aloes because it distracts himself from realizing he can’t assist people to the extent he wants to. Piet takes the aloes out of their environment and makes a new home for them. But he can’t control the environment of the South African political landscape during Apartheid.

Even when you glean that the play is about Apartheid, it is not abundantly clear how the characters are related to that history and what their role is. It is only hinted at.

For instance we learn the wife is recovering from some sort of mental health episode or break down, but we don’t know exactly why or what she went to through. We hear that she is very upset about police taking her diaries. We don’t know what’s in them or why it’s a big deal. We don’t know why they raided their house. And she also alluded to some sort of mistreatment in how she was handled in her rehabilitation facility, but we never quite find out what happened to her and why she was there.

As a white South African, she too is a native, but she has a different experience than Steven because the color of her skin protects her and historically plays into how she is treated.

Piet is trying so hard to identify the aloes and understand them scientifically because he can’t do the same thing with humans. There is a sense of grappling to understand and classify things, but the play doesn’t even do that for the audience so how can we expect the characters to do so?

There are rumors that there was an informant that led to prison time for Steven and others in their cause, which is not even clearly identified as a protest. People in their circle suspect Piet of being that informant because he is white. When Steven confronts him about it after a lot of prodding from Gladys, who seems to have a more bleak and realistic understanding of what’s going on, Piet owns up to it even though it wasn’t him. When Gladys asks him why, he says because they were going to think it anyway. We never find out who the informant is, but it is a case of how perception can often be reality.

So there is a disconnect between societal labels and judgments placed on people and their actual history. Similarly black South Africans were being vilified for their skin color, when the white people responsible perhaps new nothing about them beyond how they label them.

The first act drags a little bit more than the second because of the two person dynamic, but the intensity goes up when we introduce the Steven and anticipate whether or not he will come to dinner.

Also, there are inconsistencies in Gladys’s behavior that suggest she isn’t stable, so it makes us curious about what’s wrong with her and what her story is. In the beginning she is almost silent and expressionless, but later on she becomes almost manic and paranoid, yet there are periods of joy. But we don’t really find out, so maybe that just goes to show that even if we did know what she was a victim of or what mental health issue she is battling, it doesn’t define her.

Piet is the only really consistent character throughout on an emotional level, throwing himself into the simplicity of classifying aloes as a distraction. Aloe plants are known for their medical traits and ability to soothe and heal, so maybe he is also looking for that comfort.

On the contrary, aloes make Gladys very uncomfortable because of their prickly appearance and she does not understand his fixation on them. Similarly she does not like being classified, so maybe it was the labels she has more problems with then the aloes themselves.

Even though the whole story takes place in one house, the interactions are interesting and most riveting elements of the story lie in what isn’t revealed or explained. Maybe that is reflective how we can’t always know everything there is to know about a person and how history has gaps in the narrative depending on what’s withheld and who’s telling the story.

“A Lesson from Aloes” just closed Sunday at Hartford Stage, but if you ever go to see this play elsewhere, I suggest reading up on the history about it first so you will understand it better.

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