The Island

The Island The Serpent Players: Athol Fugard's Theatre Company

Athol Fugard was not the sole creator of the plays with which he is credited, and many were co-created with his collaborators in the Serpent Players, a theater company he formed in the 1960s in Port Elizabeth. The group got their name from the location where they first performed a play, which was a former snake pit in the Port Elizabeth Museum.

The Serpent Players were made up of South Africans, many of whom were black and all of whom worked as teachers, clerks, and industrial workers. Their class positions contrasted with the leisure classes who typically participated in theater-making, and Fugard was committed to creating a company that granted wider access to dramatic texts for South Africans who would not typically receive dramatic education. It started as a project built around performing plays by Brecht, Strindberg, and Beckett. They particularly turned to Brecht for inspiration about social critique in theater, as well as "gestic acting." Taking cues from political theater in the past, and from Brechtian techniques, Fugard and his company, of which John Kani and Winston Ntshona were both part, made plays that addressed South African politics, and articulated an opposition to apartheid.

In an article about Fugard's work with the Serpent Players, Bello Shamsuddeen quotes Fugard about his goals: "Fugard (in Vandenbroucke 1985: 102) recalled that the Serpent Players hankered 'for a much more immediate and direct relationship with our audience than had been possible with the ready-made plays we had been doing.' These plays were remarkable, but lacked the urgent political and representational import that was needed at the time. Fugard, Kani and Ntshona’s excursion into black life then led to their most political and radical experiments—Sizwe Bansi is Dead and The Island."