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Illuminating Fugard’s Road to Mecca at BU Theatre

Re-creating South African Outsider artist’s world

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Watch the vision of Andrea Gordon (CFA’13) and James Fluhr (CFA’11) create the Mecca of Fugard’s The Road to Mecca by combining an original score and a magical set. Sacha Glasser (CFA’12), lighting and tech production, Loran Primeau (CFA’12), technical director, and Alex Grover (CFA’13) put the pieces together in the slideshow above.

The chaotic, magical world of Athol Fugard’s The Road to Mecca was inspired by the life of the late sculptor and free spirit Helen Elizabeth Martins, South Africa’s best-known Outsider artist. Unable to bear the thought of going blind when her eyesight began to fail, in 1976 Martins committed suicide.

A new production by BU’s Boston Center for American Performance, the professional wing of the College of Fine Arts School of Theatre, directed by Judy Braha, runs through March 5 at the BU Theatre.

“Miss Helen’s journey is an inspiration as well as a cautionary tale,” says Braha (CFA’08), a CFA assistant professor of directing and acting. In the play, an increasingly dejected Miss Helen becomes the focus of a collision of values between a conservative local pastor, played by Mark Cohen, a CFA assistant professor of acting, who wants the artist committed to an old age home, and Elsa Barlow, played by Alexandra Kerestly (CFA’13), a young cosmopolitan teacher from Cape Town determined to keep Miss Helen free in the world she’s crafted for herself.

“The play is also about, what do artists do?” says Braha. “How do they impact the lives of those around them?” And it examines another timeless question: what should become of old people, especially those who are eccentric, often misunderstood characters like Miss Helen? “Do we put them somewhere?” Braha asks. “Do we give them over to the darkness? What is creative freedom and how do we continue to value it?”

The current production re-creates the mesmerizing elements of Martins’ Owl House, the reclusive widowed artist’s abode, her “Mecca,” in the dusty South African outpost Karoo, with light dancing on 2,000 hanging bottles and a soundtrack of clinking glass and whispering flagons. The stage design was conceived by James Fluhr (CFA’11), who worked hand in hand with lighting designer Aaron Sherkow and sound designer and composer Andrea Gordon (CFA’13), whose original music is a haunting symphony of clinking glass, chimes, and deep bottle tones. Owl House is now a national monument and tourist destination.

The BCAP production honors the artistic legacy of Martins, says Braha, by pulling audiences into her world. Fugard draws on the sculptor’s life to explore the transformative power of art and the hazy, subjective line between creativity and insanity.

Born in 1932, Fugard is best known for probing South Africa’s racial divide in plays like The Blood Knot, Master Harold and the Boys, and other works both personal and political that are searing indictments of his nation’s policy of apartheid. Mecca is set in the 1970s, before the Soweto uprising. But in a departure from his other works, the story of Miss Helen’s fight for independence is one of “artistic apartheid,” says Braha, whose directing credits include Iphegenia and Other Daughters, Top Girls, Mad Forest, The Cherry Orchard, The Maidenstone, Dancing at Lughnasa, Hedda Gabler, Wild Honey, and The Lady from the Sea.

Fugard first came upon Martins while looking for a home in Karoo. “The people were kind of apologetic about her because they regarded her as a little crazy,” Fugard said in a 1984 interview. When he went to see Miss Helen’s Mecca for himself, she was a total recluse; two years after buying his house, she killed herself. In the ensuing years Fugard scrawled notes about Miss Helen and admittedly grew obsessed with her later years in a community hostile to her life and work, “because it was a deviation from the way they considered…a life should be lived,” he told the interviewer. “I couldn’t help responding to this and thinking: there’s a damn good story.” When the playwright learned of the elderly Miss Helen’s relationship with a young urban woman with a strong social conscience, he “was hooked. That was the moment when I swallowed the bait.”

Miss Helen also captured the imagination of Fluhr, who studied photos of Owl House and wrestled with how to present an evocative shorthand for this darkly enchanted place. Fluhr and his team planned at first to populate the stage with huge fantastical sculptures like those filling Martins’ actual garden. “But then I said, we don’t need all these sculptures,” he recalls. “We need bottles—at least 2,000—to create Miss Helen’s Mecca.” His colleagues responded with a collective gasp at first, and then they got to work. “Before you knew it we had 600 bottles,” says Fluhr, who designed sets for last year’s BCAP musical Merrily We Roll Along. “Deciding how to hang them was kind of like an installation art project, combining the efforts of one person who understands visuals, one who knows hardware, and one who knows safety.” (The play, in which candles are an important metaphor, has been staged elsewhere with Helen’s garden, her Mecca, lit with flickering votives, but fire regulations prohibit it here, explains Braha.) What fire can’t deliver, light can—especially when it plays off all the angles and shapes of the hanging bottles.

Fluhr describes his bottle inspiration as really ambitious and “slightly terrifying.” But, he adds, “Who wants to make something that’s completely achievable? The question of, will this work, cause everyone to be full engaged,” he says, is important. “I love getting that first idea out there, to start discussion. Later we work with the team to make the set alive—it really is throwing a tribe of people into a room and just making it happen.” As he labored to create Miss Helen’s world, Fluhr came to greatly admire her. “I couldn’t be more grateful to be part of telling a story about such a great woman,” he says.

The Road to Mecca runs February 23 to 27 and March 3 to 5 at the Boston University Theatre, Lane-Comley Studio 210, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston. Student, senior, and other discounts available. Find times and purchase tickets here.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu. Grace Ko can be reached at graceko@bu.edu.

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