The Struggle Continues

Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver traces the life of Roelf after the “accident”. It explores his emotions and his psychological journey as he attempts to cope with his predicament. The setting of the play is in a makeshift graveyard in South Africa. The stage is littered with empty bottles, plastic bags, and aluminum hubcaps. A huge wrecked car looms above the characters near stage right. Sand covers the stage and bits of glass and other debris are scattered haphazardly.

The play was performed at the Pershing Square Signature Center, a small theater with only a few hundred seats. The venue gave the play a very intimate touch, and the characters voices were crystal clear, although hard to understand at times due to a heavy accent.

The play begins with Simon, a black South African who acts as narrator of the story. His role is unique in that he has an active position in the production, but he also plays the part of the omniscient storyteller. His facial expression is very believable, and his diction is clear and authentic. He wore a light brown work suit that appeared dirty and old. Underneath the work suit, a stretched-out ratty t-shirt could be spotted. He was barefoot, and his face, chest, feet, and lower legs were covered in dirt. He seemed aged and his facial wrinkles appeared accentuated. He moved around the stage slowly and with much effort. His actions all seemed forced, and they gave the impression of a weary man, worn out by life’s hardships. Leon Addison Brown, who plays Simon, fit the part perfectly.

The protagonist of the play was Roelf, played by Ritchie Coster. A white South African train driver, Roelf must “come to grips” with the event that changed his life. His character emanates tones of anger and discontentment. He wears a dark red short sleeve polo shirt with tan pants. His sneakers look out of place. In contrast to Simon, he speaks much more aggressively and louder, and his words are spat, as if his words are venom. Often times, Roelf gets so worked up in his tirades that the audience is able to see spittle spray from his mouth as he shouts. Roelf’s anger is directed at the “Red Doek”, who the audience understands to be the cause of his anguish. Simon is often the target for Roelf’s rage as he is the only other character in the play.

The sound effects are subtle throughout much of the play. The howling of dogs can be heard at night as can the whistling of the wind. The most dramatic effect occurs towards the end of the play, as Reolf attempts to bury the figuratively the native woman and her child. The sound of a freight train rushes through the theater, and the blaring of the train’s horn is haunting. The audience feels the harrowing effect of the collision through the sounds, and the actual collision is not depicted on stage.
The plays’ ending is certainly a little twist. The audience expects some type of closure; that Roelf and Simon will grow to understand each other. The ending seems to symbolize the ongoing struggle of South Africans in growing as a people. It suggests that much work still is needed to overcome the remnants of apartheid.

(by Luke O’Dowd)

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The Train Driver Review

When we hear a TV broadcaster say “suicide by train,” we suddenly tune in to get the details. The reporter goes on to tell the facts about the victim. We find out the victim’s name, possibly why he or she decided to jump into the tracks, and maybe some words from friends or family. Did you ever hear what the train driver has to say about it?

Playwright Athol Fugard pries into a subject as sensitive as suicide in The Train Driver, but turns the victim’s seat so that we observe a point of view that is not widely discussed: that of the white train driver in the era of apartheid.  He plays the role of a journalist, extracting the basis of his story from a newspaper article: a black woman carrying her three children (in the play, she only has one child) steps into the track where a train is approaching and the white driver kills her. Fugard hands us a magnifying glass, allowing us to observe the aftermath from Roelf’s (Ritchie Coster) perspective. So no, we don’t actually see the accident, for those of you who are into gore. We encounter the two characters, Roelf and gravedigger, Simon (Leon Addison Brown) in an eerie graveyard setting—a small, dimly lit field of sand sprinkled with pieces of shiny rock, empty plastic bottles, shards of glass, hubcaps, abandoned wires and other miscellaneous items that are meant to represent graves in this poor squatter village.  A half-view of Simon’s shabby hut barely stands upright and a junkyard car on the left completes the scene. The set, which remains stagnant for the entirety of the play, is not only tragically beautiful, but mirrors the yearning, lonesome voices of both characters.

The audience is introduced to Roelf with a thick Afrikaans accent, thick enough to make you lean your ear further in, trying to guess what he just said.  The character was wonderfully realistic, but at a cost—it left me trying to fill in the blanks. To some, it may be a foolish sacrifice because his words are crucial to understanding the underlying change in the train driver’s psyche. However, Coster’s breadth of emotions, from ragingly aggressive, to painfully vexed, to unpredictably skittish, to hopeless, gives us a multi-faceted look into his dynamic psyche. His first dialogue with Simon consists of Roelf frantically demanding Simon to find the woman’s grave. He exerts his rage onto the dead woman for ruining his life, but his attitude towards her changes gradually. While Roelf is the firework, Simon is the glass of water. Although we meet Simon first, singing a sad jazz tune in his native tongue, he is dominated by Roelf’s boldness. Also bearing a thick, coarse accent (and a rather realistic limp), his character reads “frazzled, impartial grave digger.” Unfortunately, because too much of the play relies on dialogue, it may fail to capture the interest of young children or people who do not understand English very well.

Although Fugard successfully brings up issues about this racially sensitive topic, he is not so successful in how he decides to end the story. It is a rather abrupt, unnecessary attempt to bring the play to a final close.

The Train Driver played at the Signature Theater until September 23rd.

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“Train Driver” Review

“There are no white people sleeping here,” Simon Hanabe (Leon Addison Brown) exclaims, “Only black people.” Athol Fugard, the playwright and director of The Train Driver plays with a notion of redemption and has the audience anticipating every word of the dialogue.

When I first stepped into the theater at Pershing Square Signature Center, the play’s setting amazed me. Knowing the story behind the play, I did not picture the set to be covered with sand. It looked like a combination of a landfill and a desert. The seats are also situated in a way where the audience can almost touch the grains of sand in front of us. “How is this setting related to the story?” I wondered to myself. Similar questions continued to cross my mind before the lights in the room were dimmed.

There are only two characters. Each representing a culture that is fated to collide with each other.  Roelf Visagie (Ritchie Coster), a South African man who comes from a culture where the deceased have crosses on their labeled graves, and Simon Hanabe, another African man whose people steal wooden crosses from the graves with no name to make fire. Fugard juxtaposes the two characters to portray the disparities between the mindsets and imbalanced privileges of one African man from another; Apartheid had segregated the colored from the white men in the 1950s. Sleeping in a hut, Simon is wearing a thin set of clothes with multiple holes, whereas Roelf has a t-shirt, jacket and a pair of pants to keep him warm from the cold winters. There are multiple effects during this part of the play. The lights grow dimmer to reveal a shift from day to night and sounds of whirling winds can be heard. I shivered from the cold air, as if I was also in the frayed hut with Roelf and Simon.

This was not the only instance when my emotions changed along with the actors’. When Roelf cursed about the struggles he had to go through, I, too, wanted to curse with him. His voice grows louder when he recounts the conversations he had with his wife; his wife had told him that the accident was not his fault. His voice lowers to an almost inaudible volume when he expresses his regret for being behind the train when it ran over the woman and her two children. The audience can hear the frustration behind his accent even if his words were incomprehensible. Fugard is amplifying the differences between the human mind and conscience with the rise and fall of the actors’ voices. This enhances the captivating qualities of The Train Driver.

Sitting in the theater, I felt as if I was the one searching for a way to redeem myself. I had almost wanted to shout with Roelf,  “I’m not looking for white people. It is black people I am looking for.” Throughout this play, Fugard utilizes the audience’s various senses so that we can experience the South African man’s journey to redemption and the colored African’s living condition. The encountering of the two different cultures reveals the conflicted feelings that many of Simon’s people may have felt during the Apartheid era. It also reveals the perspective of South African men who may have benefited from the Apartheid, but felt guilty about the privileges that were given to them. Whether Roelf was able to redeem himself in the end is questionable because the ending left many questions unanswered. However, this may represent the South African men’s unredeemable sense of guilt from the Apartheid era. The unresolved ending has convinced me to want to watch other versions of the same play; I may be able to find clues to answer the various questions.

Signature Theater

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Driven to Interpret

Athol Fugard sets us off in The Train Driver with a sullen song. What are we about to see? Well, we meet one of the characters, who briefly introduces us to the background information. Although there are two sides to the story, Fugard chooses to write the play is told through the perspective of the train driver.

Based on a true story, Roelf, a train driver, is a middle-aged white man. His life falls apart when he is consumed by his own guilt. A mother and her three children had jumped in front of his incoming train to kill themselves. Of course, Roelf does not have the option to successfully stop the train before he comes in contact with the mother and children. After the accident, he is infuriated. Roelf was in search of the woman’s grave when he encounters Simon, a black man who makes a living by burying unnamed bodies. He places rubbish on the heap of sand to mark the grave that is already taken.

The stage was dimly lit, scattered with heaps of sand. Stones, tin cans, bottles, and other garbage topped the sand, giving the audience an impression of a graveyard with no graves. A shack was mounted in the center of the stage with an old and broken down car on the right. The appearance of the stage set the mood for the play; there was a tone of seriousness and desperation. This very suitably represented the influence of the apartheid. The sound effects and temperature of the theater were very noteworthy. When it became night, the lights dimmed, and the crisp wind can be heard whistling in the air. Not only that, but the air felt significantly cooler, as if you were there in the scene with the characters.

The overall setting and physicalities of the play was very simple. This let the audience focus more on what the characters are saying, giving them the opportunity to really understand how each one is feeling, specifically the train driver.

There were no unwelcome pauses between Ritchie Coster (as Roelf) and Leon Addison Brown (as Simon). Both actors knew their lines by heart and did not hesitate even once in the 90-minute play. There was passion in their acting, which helped place the audience in the shoes of the characters. Roelf started off so hysterical and infuriated that his voice shook. Although he spoke with a thick accent, his actions, the profanity, and tone of his voice was more than necessary to understand how he was feeling. “I’m fucked up in here,” he says, pointing to his head. He paced around the stage and was very distraught, as if his thoughts were scattered all over the stage. Simon, the soft-spoken character of the two, very clearly presented his very gentle and caring nature. However, his lines were very brief and sometimes so abrupt that they were surprising, but nonetheless entertaining like, “I sleep now.” Very little is revealed about Simon, compared to Roelf because of this.

The play was full of dialogue, and quite frankly, a little too much dialogue. There was not much action which led to some of the audience slipping their attention away. Now, even though there was so much dialogue, the audience is still left hanging with a few questions. What did the train driver expect when he arrived at the graveyard? What would he have done if he could locate the woman’s body? Why did the woman jump in front of the train? What was she thinking at the time? Even with the information already given to the audience, there is room for them to interpret what has not been answered.

The play The Train Driver was meant to portray the influence of the apartheid and it very well did; the audience left the theater feeling shaken and despair. It showed the interracial relationship as well as how both sides felt about the accident. In the end, however, no matter what race, we’re really all the same.

Credit: Signature Theatre

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The Train Driver…Driven to Insanity

What does an emotionally disturbed man, a graveyard, and a train have in common? It is not a question many of us face on a daily basis, but the answer is the source of Athol Fugard’s new play, The Train Driver.

The audience first meets Simon (Leon Addison Brown). We learn that Simon is a gravedigger. As Simon is working, a loud ruckus comes and we meet Roelf (Ritchie Coster). Roelf asks Simon to direct him to any new grave of a woman and her baby. According to Roelf, a woman with her baby jumped in front of his moving train and he couldn’t do anything about. Afterwards, Roelf experienced visions of him pulverizing the woman. Ultimately, causing him to lose his job, his family, and his sanity. Throughout the performance, Roelf keeps trying to find the grave in order to scream at her for all the pain he caused her.

The play wasn’t just a story about a man confronting his emotions; its sole purpose was to teach the audience that blacks still face poverty in South Africa today. Athol Fugard showed this with his use of innuendos. The set is one huge innuendo and it deserves credit. At first, it didn’t look like a graveyard. Instead it looked like a junkyard with the amount of scrap metal around and even a defunct car. As the play progressed, the audience is allowed to zoom on more innuendos. Simon’s living conditions are one of them. Simon lived in a small hut with no electricity. He only had a candle for light and he still used it very efficiently. The last two were because of the set design, but the final one was revealed in dialogue. It was less subtle, but more effective. Roelf shows Simon the news article that talked about how Roelf’s train ran over the woman. As Simon was going to grab the article, Roelf says that he doubts that Simon even knows how to read and Roelf is right. As Roelf starts reading the article, the audience learns that the setting is around 2010. To know that blacks live in terrible conditions even today, it was a bit exaggerated, but it served its purpose of informing the audience.

One scene that Athol Fugard doesn’t show is the reason why Roelf is in disarray. The audience knows how Roelf feels about the woman and how she had a profound effect on him. It would have been interesting to see why the woman jumped with her baby. What was she thinking? Did she want to make a statement? Why take her baby with her too? This wasn’t a major issue because of how well both characters were portrayed. Here, the clothes didn’t make the men, but the men made the clothes. The rags worn by Simon or the baggy sweatpants worn by Roelf didn’t feel like an article of clothing. Instead, it felt like an extension of their respective characters.

The Train Driver is filled with turns and epiphanies. On the outside, the play looks like a man versus self theme, but if one is willing to look past this façade, he or she will see something different. Athol Fugard does a good job at implying apartheid isn’t over yet and that many South African blacks face terrible life conditions.


A Flawless Performance

From the entry of Simon with his beautiful song to the unnecessary profanities of the train driver (Roelf Visagie, played by Ritchie Coster), The Train Driver appeals to many emotions that convey to the viewer the dynamics of a rather depressing situation. Simon (played by Leon Addison Brown), unable to get a decent job due to the color of his skin, digs graves for black people near the railroad; the ones who are named in one pile and the unknown ones in another. Conversational exchanges between Coster and Brown show the delicate balance of racial relationships in South African society. The way the train driver treats Simon in the beginning, with the pushy dialogue and the subtle race related remarks, is also proof of this. Both actors demonstrated to an excellent extent the authenticity of apartheid and how it affected interracial interactions. Fugard’s experience with plays relating to racial tensions can be perceived effectively through the way Simon is protecting the train driver from the groups of black people that raid some nights, hiding him in his shed, even giving him his food. Even after they become friends, there is still a hesitance between them that is due to the difference in their complexions. The two characters each have their own little quirks, providing uniqueness to otherwise basic Caucasian and black males. For example, Simon’s laugh is enough to cause an audience to smirk a little itself, while the off color swearing by the train driver depicts his anger and confused state of mind. These characters fit the general role of black and white males in apartheid filled South Africa, but these interesting characteristics are what set them apart from the expected caricatures. From the authentic accents and the genuine conditions of a poverty stricken black South African man to the train driver’s rain jacket and Simon’s large, uncomfortable overcoat, one can clearly see that South Africa’s apartheid culture was well represented in this performance.


Technically very sound, the performance’s sound effects of trains, people, and even dogs were used to great results in order to create a sense of fear and anticipation when the two main characters could not provide the spark. Even the lighting of the fire in Simon’s shed had an ominous feel to it, sending a dreary shudder through the audience. Dimly lit with a dark backdrop, there was actual gravel on the stage floor. The morose atmosphere of the stage was extremely somber, well suited to the play’s needs. With every description of the scene in which the lady and her baby were killed, an image forms of a struggle of a man trying to stop a train and then a sudden thud. The train driver’s agony is reflected through these memories and flashbacks. Many questions arise in the audience’s mind.  Who was this lady? What was going through her mind? Was it an accident? Suicide? Why the baby as well? The ending of the play is the complex unraveling of the racial tension between Simon and the train driver along with the self- deprecating attitude of the train driver reaching a breaking point. The train driver’s search for personal peace is what guides him to do what he does, but attaining this peace proves to be rather difficult.



This play deals with an inner struggle of a man who has experienced a life-changing event. However, the underlying theme of the prominence of racial differences is felt in every swear, every song, and every gesture made by the two men. The one complaint about this play, if anything would be that Fugard may have not necessarily taken the knowledge level of all audiences into account. It can be clearly be seen that there are racial undertones to the plot, but it would have been better if there was some more direct racial conflict. The audience should definitely do their research before viewing any performance of The Train Driver.


Why would a man care so deeply for a woman he didn’t know? What causes benevolence even in times of prejudice and hatred between two completely opposite men? Hope, and therefore the lack of hope inspire and plague the characters of this play, as internal and external struggles shape their lives and decisions. One of the smoothest, most well rehearsed performances in recent memory, this is a must watch for any theater lover.


Credit: Navtej S. Ahuja (Photographer), James Houghton and Erika Mallin (Directors), and The Perishing Square Signature Center (SignatureTheater)

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Another World

Fugard’s The Train Driver is a performance made unique and memorable by the way it was told. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that this is a two person play that creatively makes use of the power of memory through story telling. The plot is driven through listening to Roelf (Ritchie Coster) tell his story. But the play becomes mind-blowing when one realizes that this is actually a story within a story since the play is in actuality a memory being told to us by Simon (Leon Addison Brown). Even if the play tanks, Fugard deserves credit for the ingenius way the play is presented. The plays meta qualities show how memory is a central theme this play.

Credits to Richard Termine/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

Ritchie Coster and Leon Addison Brown made no noticeable mistakes in their lines. Coster portrays his character well but he does not come without a few grievances. He is able to effectively deliver the raw rage and desparation that initially consumes his character Roelf. Although his accent is initially thick and rough, his tone of voice is more than enough to adequately show his frustration. Once I was adjusted to his thick accent, the myriad of profanity spewed constantly from his mouth. At first what seemed like disgruntlement quickly became repetitive almost to a point where it plain vulgar.

Leon Addison Brown’s role as Simon is largely overshadowed by Coster’s role as Roelf. His humbleness, soft-spoken lines make him easily forgettable. However, this is not to say that he is unnecessary. His gentleness and innocent nature makes him incredibly likeable and is essential in Roelf’s mental transformation. Simon’s laid back attitude at times also provided tidbits of humor and comic relief that was necessary after tense moments filled with intense emotion.

The two demonstrated good teamwork in this two-man ninety production. There was no clashing between the actors. However, that is not necessarily a good thing. Without any big clashes between the characters, at times it was almost as if Brown’s character was part of the audience watching Coster play Roelf.

The setting was almost a whole achievement in itself. The broken down car, junk, litter, and sand scattered all over the place created a wonderful set that was pleasing to the eye and set aside the tradition wooden stages. Perhaps one of the most amazing things about the set was that there was interaction with the junk scattered around. The setting also effectively paralleled the desparation in Roelf. Here we see a man who is angry and largely confused wandering desperately in search of answers. Yet he ends up in a desolate and depressing graveyard. Who can answer his questions when everyone is dead here?

Credit to Signature Theatre

The play went undisturbed and flowed nicely. This was largely due to both the lighting and sound effects. The lights subtly changes from dark to bright and then back to dark to mimic the sun passing throughout the day. It happens a few times throughout the play. The sound effects also secretly combine with the lighting by creating sounds of wind to show the cool air of the night. What was amazing was that during the transition to night, waves of cool air actually passed through the theatre to convey a realistic feeling.

As a play with a social theme, The Train Driver does indeed show the results and aspects of apartheid in South Africa. Its ending offers a wake-up call with shocking realism about the fragility of life and how in the end we’re all just skin and bones.

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Prepare to Embrace the Impact

BAM! The train rams into the black woman and her kid – is what we have expected to be The Train Driver’s sensational opener. Instead, we are welcomed by a wasteland of rusted metals and sand, and a run-down, decaying car sits silently on stage that sets up an eerie and increasingly edgy mood. It is the home of Simon Hanabe (Leon Addison Brown) the black gravedigger, and the resting ground for the nameless. And so we witness Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver, the after-tale based on a true story where a black woman and her four children jumped in front of a train and died.

In this story about the despair brought forth by the apartheid, Fugard chooses to tell it in the perspective of the white Train Driver, Roelf Visagie (Ritchie Coster). Not only do Africans feel despair, so much that they are willing to commit suicide, the whites who live among them also do. They can suffer severe traumas that can lead to insanity, resentment, and devastation of their lives. That is well portrayed by the great dramatic acting of Coster. He enters the stage in misery after the train incident, roaring at Simon to locate the nameless black woman that he has killed. He walks in circles, scratches and pulls his hair, wipes his sweat, spits while shouting, kicks the sand, and throws metal parts and stones to illustrate his anxiety, anger, frustration, and ultimately, despair. He has lost everything: his job, his family, his mind and his hopes. Pointing to his head, Roelf says to Simon, “It means I’m fucked up in here.”

Hope is something that separates the white men from the black men in Africa. But Fugard effective shows us that once hope is lost people become equals regardless of their skin colors. The exceptional lines that Roelf, in all his wrath and insanity, repeatedly concludes reveal that “It’s all about hope.” After the train driver realizes this, he wants to bury himself in the same graveyard as the black woman who died. The climax, however, is the abrupt death of Roelf, masterfully enhanced by the thundering noise soundtrack of an incoming train. Hopelessness and death then become the ultimate equalizers for people living in apartheid.


(Photo Credits to Signature Theater, taken by Richard Termine)

The uniqueness of this stage in Signature Theater lies in its efficiency. The unused tires and rubbles on the broken car acts like a staircase for Roelf’s grand entrance, day and night is easily altered by the powerful lights, and Simon’s metal box home can turn to reveal and conceal its inner chamber. You wouldn’t think that a seemingly barren stage can employ so many subtleties to add life to the play.


(Photos Credit to Signature Theater, taken by Richard Termine)

For this 90 minutes two-man show, to keep the audience captivated and excited throughout is an incredible feat, especially when both characters are played with a thick accent. But with the vigor, anger, and desperation portrayed by the casts, Coster and Brown, The Train Driver accomplished just that. Not only has Coster and Brown perfectly memorize their lines, the spirited emotions quickly circulate through the audiences as Roelf explodes in anger and frustration, pointing, cursing and ordering Simon with a condescending tone.

Roelf’s costume, however, reveals that he has no social status other than the fact that he is white. Dressed in bagged pants, dirty green jacket and a pair of old sneakers, Roelf looks pitiful. It was disappointing that Simon almost looks better than Roelf with his unwrinkled overcoat. Fortunately, Simon’s inner garment, untidy dress-up and baggy prison-like overall, indicates that he is in no better position than Roelf.

(Photos Credit to Signature Theater, taken by Richard Termine)

The Train Driver gives us a deep insight into the apartheid existing in South Africa, and it is masterfully scripted and performed. It provides a powerful account on the aftermath of a terrible tragedy caused by apartheid with a strong emphasis on hopelessness. Without a doubt, this play certainly is a masterpiece of its genre.

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Respect for the Unnamed

Vulgar and wretched, yet sympathetic, cries of a traumatized white train driver echoed the compact theater and startled me with his every exclamation as I was sitting merely a few feet from stage.  Roelf Visagie (Ritchie Coster), the train driver, enters the scene to accompany Simon Hanabe (Leon Addison Brown), the old gravedigger, at center stage by climbing down from realistic train tracks onto an actual bashed-up car located at the side of a sand and garbage covered stage.

Scattered everywhere were mounds of sand to represent graves of the “unnamed,” those who died and have not been claimed for. The setting was stagnant; the play took place at the graveyard all throughout because the element of time was nicely made clear the focus by the play of lighting to represent the passing of time.

Photograph by Nancy Zhu

Everything was truly realistic: the sand dust floating in the air with every forceful digging Roelf does, using actual fire to light the candle, and the power in both the characters’ emotions. With the audience situated so close to the stage, it is not difficult to understand that the play captured everyone’s attention and grasped onto our emotions.

Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver aimed to bring to light a different point of view during apartheid in South Africa. The play holds the view of the situation through the mind of the white train driver in the times where whites were superior to blacks. Here, Fugard portrays that though Roelf was a white male, accidentally killing a black woman and her child was not an easy thing for him to get over. In fact, he exclaims, “Does she know she ruined my life?” We learn through Roelf’s mix of angered and distressed emotions effectively portrayed by his drunk-like behavior of endless rants and incomprehensible murmuring that he blames the unnamed black woman, who jumped in front of his train, for his loss of everything and his hope to find an answer to essentially the question, “Why is life so?” We can see he shifts his perception from completely blaming her to, in the end, sympathizing for her and wishing that somebody had claimed her, as his steps and voice become noticeably calmer. It was touching to learn that despite the clash and constant tension between blacks and whites in the apartheid in South Africa, Roelf, a white man, through socializing with an old black haggard character, Simon, was able to come to a conclusion that although he lives in a completely different world and he has no way of finding out the way the unnamed black woman may have lived, or why she decided to jump in front of the train, he is certain that she is human too and deserves more respect in her grave. She deserved someone to claim her, thus he wished he had done so for respect.

Fugard’s play, The Train Driver, was performed so smoothly and realistically that this is worth the time for any one to give theater a shot.



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Enjoy the Ride

A man sprawled over a sandy grave, wretchedly trying to arrange the scattered stones into a dignified cross will leave you with chills spiking through your shirt. How can a man care so much about a dead woman who he never knew? Well, Athol Fugard will tell you exactly why in The Train Driver.

Poster from outside theater

Roelf Visagie (Ritchie Coster) begs for the nameless. He dignifies the graves of the undignified during his search for the one he calls “Red Doek.” Hate consumes Roelf’s life as his life was instantly ruined. ‘Red Doek,’ an African mother had thrown herself, along with her baby, in front of a train—his train—and took Roelf down with her. However, Roelf is able to turn hate into a quite different emotion with a little help from Simon Hanabe (Leon Addison Brown.)  The relationship that slowly forms between Simon and him helps Roelf realize a truth behind the death of the mother. The mostly bare graveyard is the setting of a psychological evolution.

The woman decimated Roelf’s happy life. He despises her, and what she had done to him. He screams to her from the graveyard in anguish, then he screams at Simon for answers. The sadness of the man is expressed through the anger of his actions. Ritchie Coster did a fantastic job with the expressive nature of his character. His dirty clothes and body, along with drunken movements and slurred speech, captured the essence of the character’s agony.

Credits to Richard Termine/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

At first sight, the set seems like a fairly unpopulated junkyard with sand covering  the ground. The only ‘junk’ being a scrapped sedan sprawled on the left side of the stage covered in old tires, wood, and soiled fabrics. Other than the car, a small shack in which the grave digger—Simon— calls home sweet home. Surrounding the shack, small piles of earth, topped with stones, litter the ground. Then to disturb the (seemingly already disturbed) wasteland, Roelf comes to interrogate Simon the suicidal woman. The detail of the set was interesting. The sense of dirtiness and wear is injected into each piece of the set. Even Simon’s shovel is worn at the spaded tip from the endless digging that must have occurred.

The main issue at stake is apartheid, an issue in which Athol Fugard is well-versed and passionate about. The ghastly effect of apartheid on the innocent is implied throughout the play. Fugard does not barrage these ideas at you though, allowing room for interpretation.

Less is more in the case of The Train Driver. The simple set, and the simple costumes allowed for more of a focus on the story. It allowed for more attention to be given to the minute details surrounding the characters and the storyline. Being that there are only two actors, the words each character speaks are not lost. It gives each sentence more value, and gives each sentence more potency.

So don’t be fooled by a small theater, a simple set, and two actors; just enjoy the ride.

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A Point Driven Home

The eerie graveyard setting of Athol Fugard’s play “The Train Driver” is an excellent fit for the story the play tells. The barren wasteland filled with garbage, a broken down car and a lone hut set the mood for the play, a serious and hopeless tone to match the topic of Apartheid. Like everything, Apartheid has two sides. Fugard chooses to write about the interesting white person point of view, telling the story through the eyes of a crazed train driver.

Based on a true story about how a mother jumped in front of a train killing herself and her three children, “The Train Driver” takes a solemn atmosphere from the very beginning. Roelf Visagie (Ritchie Coster) plays the maddened train driver, who has had his life destroyed by the accident. Though not at fault, he is still haunted by the image of the pulverized body of the nameless woman, “red doek” that his train hit, and he has come to the squatter camp to look for her grave.

He meets the gravedigger, Simon Hanabe (Leon Addison Brown), a black man who earns his meager living by burying the unnamed dead and marking their spots with garbage. The scattered bricks, irons, bottles and rocks lying still in the sand sadly do not act as headstones; they just mark the places where he is not to dig again, showing the little respect that the nameless dead receive. Over the next 90 minutes, the two men talk and although Hanabe never fully welcomes Roelf, he accepts him into his home after warning him that it is dangerous for him outside.

Credits to Richard Termine/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

Roelf has reflective moments during the play. Unlike his rash, accented screaming and yelling at Hanabe at the beginning of the play, which is very hard to understand, these later monologues can be understood. He strikes a serious note with idea that death is the ultimate unifier. “Black man or white man…the maggots don’t care about that.” Roelf begins to understand the story from the black point of view, understanding the hopelessness and despair that the black underclass felt. His anger subsides and he no longer hates the nameless and unwanted woman.

Coster and Brown both do above average jobs of acting their role. Brown always looks and speaks with respect to Coster, who is playing the white man in the play. However with his short and abrupt dialogue, not much is revealed about him, which is disappointing since he is one of only two characters in the play. He is a simple gravedigger who needs his spade to survive. Coster on the other hand is exploding with emotion. He curses throughout his rampages way too often, but his profanity just illustrates the effect that the accident had on him.  At first he is raged, hysterical and hard to understand. But as Coster’s character begins to understand and empathize with the hopeless, the harsh wrinkles and bright red color on his face fade to a pale white. His expressions relax, and he can talk about the nameless “red doek” calmly and in a reflective manner.

Credits to Richard Termine/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

Since there is only a two-man cast, the story often feels like a monologue. It takes a while to get going because it takes some time before the viewer starts understanding Coster’s outbursts. But once that obstacle is overcome, both the dialogue and script of the play overtake the viewer and shows the true power of the play. There is nothing on stage to distract the viewer from the conversation and the well-delivered lines. The costumes were tattered clothes, ripped and nothing eye catching at all. The lighting was simple: a bright light for day and a blue moonlight for night. Everything was motionless in the background to allow the viewer to focus on the intensity of the dialogue between Hanabe and Roelf. This way the viewer walks away with a powerful message about the struggle and hopelessness of Apartheid, but also how in the end, we are all the same.


Powerful Message with a Touch of the Visuals

Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard, credit to and Gregory.C

“This is the graveyard for the ones without names.” As light gradually brightens up the stage, Leon Addison Brown, who played Simon Hanabe the grave keeper, opened “The Train Driver” with his first line. The story went on as the protagonist appeared on the sanded floor. Both of the actors memorized their lines perfectly, along with the almost exact replication of a graveyard as the setting, credited to the Production Stage Manager Linda Marvel, tied the whole production well together into a piece of art.

The story was about the train driver Roelf Visagie (Ritchie Coster). He had failed to stop the train when a South African mother committed suicide with her child in front of his train. On stage, instead of showing the suicide, Athol Fugard, the playwright of this show as well as other shows like “Blood Knot” and “Coming Home”, revealed the scene mixed with feelings through the main character. Roelf interminably asked Simon for the body of a nameless woman with a baby while babbling about the incident over and over again.  He talked in such an anachornic way with phrases like “I think I killed her” everywhere as part of the act throughout the play. Often time, the whole play felt like a monologue though there were two characters. The movement and the emotions hidden in the lines reveal the contradicting feelings the protagonist had ever since the accident.

As a political piece, “The Train Driver” underlay the theme of Apartheid while fluently illustrated the surface conflicts of the story. The play was actually inspired by a real life event, in which a mother was forced by her living conditions to commit suicide with all three of her kids. During the 90 minutes, it is hard to not notice the various symbols and lines illustrating the continuous poverty and disparity among people in South Africa, especially among black people, , such as “unable to make a cross for the nameless ones because the wood would be taken for fire”, even though Apartheid had ended for a period of time. Once again, this time also as the director, Mr. Fugard had brilliantly merged the guilt and many other feelings into the lines of the main character, which was presented flawlessly on stage by Ritchie Coster.

However, one major shortcoming occurred as the show went on. The language used in the play was very redundant. Though sometimes it was to reinforce the theme of the story, most of the time it was just unnecessary. Instead of grabbing the attention of the audience, the repetition pushed the focus of most people away when it occurred. In other words, the redundancy was very “influential”— in a negative way.

Though I would actually enjoy this play much more if I can understand that heavy South African accent of theirs. Otherwise, the ideas and the scenes shown in “The Train Driver” were very powerful, and most importantly, you won’t regret your 25 dollars.

(background information credited to


All Aboard Fugard’s Riveting Performance!

Through his play The Train Driver, Fugard coerces his audience to focus on the issue of apartheid in South Africa. The entire play revolves around an event where a black mother commits suicide, with her child, by standing in front of a train. The Protagonist, a white train driver, Roelf (Ritchie Coster) has his life torn apart when the guilt of the incident consumes him. The mental trauma of the accident builds fury in Roelf and forces him to find and confront the woman’s at the graveyard where she was buried, which is where he meets Simon (Leon Addison Brown).

The setting of the play was in itself an appropriate representation of the influence apartheid had throughout the divided country. A dull graveyard, where tombstones were replaced with debris, was used as a fictitious resting ground for blacks and served as the epicenter of Fugard’s play. The sand was polluted with dirt, shards of glass, and rusted metal. In the middle of the entire land stood a humble little shack, which Simon, the black caretaker of the graveyard, called home.

Interestingly enough, Fugard decides to omit the presence of a physical antagonist in his play. One might say that the unnamed woman who committed suicide or the briefly mentioned gang took on the role of the antagonist. However, Fugard still refrained from including the conventional presence of an antagonist, perhaps to stress on the effect the accident had on Roelf and focus instead on how he would ultimately confront the situation.

To tackle the issue of apartheid, Fugard incorporates several subtle, but effective, fragments into the story. Other than the issue of race in the graveyard, Fugard includes a scene where the local gang may be angered with a black man and a white man interacting. He also reveals a little about Roelf’s life before the accident and leaves it to the audience to juxtapose that one with that of Simon’s. Unfortunately, Fugard doesn’t relate the situation of apartheid in Roelf’s time to present day, where it has improved but many question to what level.

Fugard throws his audience directly into the center of the story by providing a limited amount of background information. The audience is left engaged, wondering, “What is going on?” As the play continues, we are able to peel away at the story. We find that, before the incident, the characters come from rather stereotypical backgrounds but change throughout the play.

Fugard elaborates on the characters and the story line with the use of costume design. The ragged clothes reflect the endless suffering that Roelf has endured. His spoiled attire mixes with his sweat and obvious intoxication to bring a powerful presence on the stage. While Simon’s bulky and grubby coat mirrors his modest lifestyle.

Credits to Signature Theatre

In an attempt to shed light on Roelf’s frustration, Fugard makes frequent use of profanity and vulgar language throughout the entire play. Instead of pointlessly throwing around adulterated language, Fugard shrewdly uses it to engross the audience and simultaneously convey Roelf’s rage. The power of the script resonates throughout the theatre.

Unfortunately Ritchie Coster’s acting was unable to keep pace with the intensity required for Roelf’s character to be properly portrayed. Leon Brown maintained a more tranquil quality, required for Simon’s character. To dilute sometimes silent and stretched scenes, Fugard adds portions of humor to Simon’s character, making him rather enjoyable to watch.

Fugard concludes the play with finally bringing Roelf to peace with what has happened to him. Although certain parts of the play may seem confusing and unconnected at times, Fugard brings the play full circle. I left the theatre, shaken by a powerful and riveting performance.

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A Missing Answer

Poignant screams of an emotionally distressed man reverberate against the walls of the theater.

“Who put all this junk on the ground?” he cries, standing on a barren land of sand and waste. Pieces of rusting scrap metal and old appliances scatter the ground, forming clusters here and there atop of heaps of sand. His eyes search the face of the black gravedigger, pleading to find an answer. Why do the bodies of the dead rot below mounds of sand in this waste ground, not wept for, not honored, not remembered? Why did a suicidal woman shatter his life during her own death? And where do the remains of this nameless woman lay?

There is no answer.

Anthol Fugard’s The Train Driver awakes your emotion unlike any other theater performance. It grabs you by your clothes and takes you to a place where human misery has no asylum: a graveyard of sand and garbage, where only the nameless and unwanted lie buried.

Surprisingly, this place is not hard to imagine. The seats in the Perishing Square Signature Center are so close to the stage that within minutes, the audience is integrated into the performance.

There were no flashy costumes, flamboyant characters, or extravagant set design. Instead, simplicity created something very realistic. Especially noteworthy was the control of lighting to suggest the time of day and temperature. The lights shone brightly at what seemed to be noon, hitting the characters so intensely that it seemed to make their skin perspire with sweat. To represent night, a single dim light shone over Simon’s tin house while the surroundings were encased in darkness.  Even the air felt cool, as if the temperature had been intentionally changed within the theater.

The actor Ritchie Coster convincingly portrayed the last few days of a South African train driver who, after accidentally killing a woman and her child, is overcome by trauma.

Roelf (Ritchie Coster) descends to the stage with a slumped back, uneasy steps, and an unrecognizable murmuring. Though his Boer accent is thick and his words are sometimes indiscernible, his riveting portrayal of emotion fills in the gaps of the story. Through incessant rambling, bursts of outrage, and impulsive jerks, he identifies his need to Simon, the old gravedigger, to find the woman that he killed. Leon Addison Brown, playing Simon, fits the stereotype of a haggard old man almost too perfectly. Wearing a dirty beige janitorial uniform, he moves about the set slowly. He seldom speaks, yet his deliberated and well-enunciated words are redolent of his many years of struggle. Though Brown is not old, he does a good job at portraying a character advanced in years.

Photograph from Signature Theater

One of the most memorable moments, not entirely unlike the others, occurs when Roelf runs from grave to grave, rearranging the rocks upon them to form a cross. Though he is exhausted from insomnia, he scurries about the graveyard. He drops on his knees before each mound of sand, forcefully picking up the surrounding rocks and slamming them into the center of each grave. The veins on his arms bulge out, the sweat on his back shines underneath the bright light, and frantic expressions run through his face. Whether it be rearranging rocks or imploring Simon to remember where he buried the nameless woman, Roelf fights to understand the other way of life in South Africa.  What he finds is a life without hope.

After moments of agonizing self-hatred, Roelf leads the story to a very predictable climax by claiming the unknown woman. He realizes that he has the same fate as the woman, regardless of their different colors or status within society. Shortly following is what seems to be a second climax, this time filled with sensationally blinding lights and booming sounds that draw everyone back with a gasp.

A social commentary, The Train Driver reflects on the lasting impact of the apartheid in South Africa in the early 21st century. For those who do not have background knowledge about the play, it is very difficult to understand that it revolves around the greater theme of apartheid. Regardless, it is quite memorable. Lacking a distinct hero or villain, it shows life as it truly is: without explanation.

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The Train-Wrecked Driver

Ritchie Coster (Roelf Visagie) has the audience on the edge of their seats for much of the production.  As the train driver, Coster is given the hefty responsibility of remembering 90 minutes of lines.  Not only does he have every line memorized, he performs his part with such emotion and passion.  He is portrayed as an average white man, who experiences a rather sudden and disturbing twist to his life.  After the audience gets past his thick, difficult to understand accent, he becomes such a pleasant surprise to watch.  Coster’s performance is one jam packed with intensity that he often outshines his counterpart, Leon Addison Brown.

Leon Addison Brown plays the character of Simon Hanabe, an African American gravedigger, who presides over a yard full of unidentifiable persons.  While Brown complements Coster well for the majority of the show, there are times where his performance is less than stellar.  When the train driver is dealing with mental instability, Brown seems to act almost indifferent to his emotionally disturbed counterpart.  He repeatedly tries to discourage the train driver from searching for the no named woman, and at times, he shows a lack of interest in Roelf’s crisis.  As a whole though, the two balance each other effectively with their levels of emotion required of their opposing characters.

(Photo Credits to Richard Termine)

At first glance, the set of the show seems rather disappointing.  The economical setup, however, perfectly fits the plot of The Train Driver.  In one corner, an old, run down jeep is stationed, which characters are seen walking on at various points.  The middle of the stage consists of a large assortment of graves covered in piles of rusted tools and trash.  While seemingly unimportant, this graveyard helps reflect the mental insanity that the protagonist experiences.  The masterpiece of the entire set is Simon’s beat up shed, where he sleeps and invites Roelf to spend the night.  For a production such as this, extravagance is unnecessary; simplicity is key.  Fugard’s set hits the nail on the head for the graveyard of Shukuma, an indigenous camp in South Africa.

Rather than predictably opening with the accident, Fugard decides to take a more unethical approach to his production.  He throws the audience a curve ball when he decides to leave the train accident out of the night completely.  Instead, Fugard would rather the audience focus on this ongoing social issue at hand: Apartheid.  Fugard’s play taking place presently allows the audience to understand the immense impact this has on people of today’s society.  While not specifically referenced, Apartheid remains open for exploration with these stereotypical characters in a South African setting.

This two-person show contains vast amounts of dialogue that can be dragged out at times; however, the excellent reciprocity of Coster and Brown keep the show lively and entertaining.  Roelf Visagie is a middle-class, white male looking to make a living for him and his wife.  After tragedy strikes, Roelf will have his entire world flipped upside down.  It seems as though this woman, who he never met, may have drastically altered the remainder of his life.  Will Roelf be able to let this go, or will he be eaten alive by his self-created guilt?  Through unexpected twists and turns, he makes various conclusions about the tragedy that struck his life; however, the question remains: Did this all happen too late?

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Critics’ Corner

Writing encourages us to process what we have encountered, to articulate global impressions or break them down into more analytical components. Here in the Critics’ Corner, we respond in writing to events and excursions.

Feel free to express your own point-of-view, but back it up with details — especially visual ones — that support your opinions.

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For Tuesday: Critical Terms for Theater

Dear Arts in NYC students, For Tuesday, I asked you to bring in at least five critical terms that you think would be useful in writing about the theater. Try to include basic terms like cast and set as well as terms such as protagonist, backdrop, denouement, etc. Please upload the terms to our class blog. Our ITF Ben Miller is adding another sub-category, critical terms under the category Critic’s Corner.  Once you have uploaded your terms, please read through the other terms and add your comments/suggestions for sharpening and/or refining the definitions. We will look at these in class.

Here is the information on The Train Driver

Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center

480 West 42nd Street (between 9th and 10th Avenue)

The performance is at 7:30 PM but we will meet at 7:00 PM so that I can distribute tickets.


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