L. Peter Callender is well known to Bay area theater goers as a formidable Shakespearean actor and artistic director of the African American Shakespeare Company. In this time when live theatre is suspended, he has turned his hand to playwrighting and offers up ‘Strange Courtesies,’ a play about the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa, which he has directed in a staged reading on video.
In a recent interview, Mr. Callender explained some of the background to the play.
“I was inspired,” he says, “by many threads. A few friends of mine had gone to South Africa on a visit, and came back enlightened and spoke about the people they’d met, who were building a new post-apartheid South Africa. They told me about a young nurse they met who was this amazing human being, so graceful and caring. They just met her on the street and were talking to her. This caught my attention in particular because my mother was a nurse. This was about thirteen or fourteen years ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.”
Another factor contributing to Callenders’ fascination with South Africa is the work of South African playwright Athol Fugard, one of Callender’s favorite writers. Callender reports having performed in or directed eight of Fugard’s plays
“All that,” he says, “conflated into the thought about writing a play about one family’s journey in post apartheid South Africa. It’s been on my mind for a very long time. It’s gone through many, many lives.”
The title is a phrase from Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.”
“I have played Antony,” says Callender. “And that phrase just struck with me.”
What is the connection?
“It is a strange courtesy on the part of the Black citizens of South Africa,” he says, “that they allowed these people, their oppressors, to sit in chairs all over the country and tell of murder and mayhem and abuse and then say, ‘Well, thank you. Thank you very much for that. You are dismissed.”
They were dismissed, Callender notes, simply because they did the courtesy of telling the story.
“That got to me,” says Callender. “That is part of what the title means.”
“We—I mean South Africans—accepted this,” he says with eloquent astonishment. “It was a strange thing, a strange courtesy, for us to say things like ‘Well, thank you for telling me where my son’s body was mutilated and thrown away. Thank you.'”
Callender wanted to understand how it was possible that the victims of decades of oppression could treat their oppressors with such extraordinary grace, and even find it possible to sympathize with and understand their shared humanity. He tried to put that compassion and sympathy into the play with the character of the police officer, Prinzloo, who is able to move past a lifetime of irrational prejudice and brutal hatred. Prinzloo is changed by a single encounter with one particular Black boy, who died under torture. Callender found the thought that a single child, a single person, in a single encounter, could transform a lifetime of hatred to be deeply inspiring.
“What South Africa has done,” he says, “is to become a nation that shines on the horn of Africa. Of course it’s still struggling. There is still work to be done. But, oh my gosh! — what an example for the world. The South Africans are a people of grace and honor — both white and Black. It’s not a perfect nation, but the things they have come through and the lessons that they have learned on the journey are quite amazing.”
I asked Callender if he thought that it was possible to have Truth and Reparation in America.
“Yes,” he says. “It is possible. Perhaps not in my lifetime (and I hope to live to a hundred twenty!), but the experience of South Africa shows us that, yes, it is possible, if only we can let go of our pride and find the humility to look honestly at our history. I write in the hope for America to understand what it’s like for a nation to go through all those years of abuse, and still come out shining, an example for the rest of the world.”
“Strange Courtesies” premieres as a staged reading on video tonight (February 27, 2021) at 7 p.m. (Pacific Time) and will be available for viewing through March 3, 2021. For further information, click here.