CHAPEL HILL - At the age of 80, South African playwright Athol Fugard is the hottest property in American theater right now.
No fewer than four major productions of Fugard’s plays are being staged in New York this season. His “Road to Mecca” just ended a three-month run on Broadway, and his “Blood Knot” is currently the inaugural production at the Signature Theater Company’s new theater. He’s been all over the pages of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker magazine and other publications.
So it is with particular relish that UNC brings Fugard to Chapel Hill this week as the Morgan Family Writer-in-Residence.
“It’s a good thing we issue the invitations a year in advance,” said Bland Simpson, professor of English and Comparative Literature and a past director of the writer-in-residence program. “You couldn’t get him now.”
Fugard will be the 20th Morgan Family Writer in Residence to come to UNC – and, it appears, the last.
The program, which for 19 years has brought some of the world’s most acclaimed writers here to lead workshops, meet with students, participate in campus and community events and give free public lectures and readings, is losing its funding after this year.
“We feel like we’re going out on top,” said Susan Irons, senior lecturer and director of special programs in the Department of English and Comparative Literature, which hosts the program.
Carolina alumni Allen and Musette Morgan founded the writer-in-residence program in 1993 with funding for five years, Simpson said.
They renewed the gift in increments after that and funded it through this year’s residency, but it was not an endowment and was never intended to continue in perpetuity.
“The program wasn’t made to last forever,” said Daniel Wallace, the J. Ross MacDonald Distinguished Professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Program at UNC.
“It’s been 20 writers over 19 years, and I think they just felt like that was a good place to stop.”‘A wonderful vision’
Irons said the Morgans, who now live in Memphis, Tennessee, have expressed nothing but pride and gratification in the program. The feeling, she said, is mutual.
“We have such gratitude for the Morgans and what they’ve made possible here,” she said. “They have been incredibly generous. They had a wonderful vision for what the program could be. They wanted to celebrate the literary arts, and it was important to them that the program reach not only students and faculty, but also extend into the community. They met that vision, and we are so grateful.”
Novelist and historian Shelby Foote was the first Morgan Family writer, in 1993. In the years since, the program has featured writers such as Joan Didion, Russell Banks, Alice Walker, Calvin Trillin and more.
“We don’t set our sights low,” Wallace said. “We look for people we think are the best writers alive. And most of the people we’ve contacted have been eager to be a part of it. The literary community is not that big. When someone participates and comes away with a positive feeling about it, other writers hear about it.”Upcoming events
Fugard is best known for his plays exploring the injustice of South Africa’s former system of apartheid. The film adaptation of his “Tsotsi” won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2005.
He will deliver a free public talk on “Milestones of a Literary Journey” Wednesday night at the Paul Green Theater in UNC’s Center for Dramatic Art. Fugard also will participate in a Q-and-A following a screening of “Tsotsi” at the Varsity Theatre Monday, and in a panel discussion Wednesday.
Staged readings of his plays will be presented at the Center for Dramatic Art and The ArtsCenter in Carrboro is presenting a full production of “Blood Knot.” On campus, Fugard will meet with students. “We’ve only had one other playwright in the series, and we wanted to honor that aspect and acknowledge the relationship between dramatic art and creative writing,” Simpson said.
The organizers of the Morgan Family series say they have high hopes that funding can be found to allow the university to continue to bring well-known national and international writers in for a residency every year.
“It’s importance to the community and the university is well established,” Wallace said. “Somebody’s going to want to be a part of that.”
In the meantime, though, he wants to make sure Fugard’s visit closes the Morgans’ participation on a high note.
“This last Morgan Family program is going to be a celebration of everything the Morgans have done over the years,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”