Las Vegas Sun

March 20, 2019

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Out of South Africa: Helen Martins’ compelling life brought to stage in ‘Road to Mecca’

In the final years of her life, Helen Martins sought to create a world that would banish all darkness.

She ground beer bottles and smeared the broken glass on her walls so they would shimmer. She hung mirrors, made art from household objects and burned candles to illuminate the rooms.

When the interior of her home in Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa, was consumed by her work, Martins designed an army of statues to surround its exterior.

Deemed too eccentric by the conservative community in which she lived, Martins saw her hope dwindle when age challenged her creative and physical being.

In "The Road to Mecca," South African anti-apartheid playwright Athol Fugard portrays Martins' struggle between light and dark, religion and spirituality, the depth of friendship and agism.

The production, based on Martins' life, opens tonight at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas' Black Box Theatre with Tony Award-winning actor and former South African Zakes Mokae as director.

Though "The Road to Mecca" focuses on a subject less political than Fugard's other works, Mokae said it carries similar weight.

"It's what people do to each other," Mokae said. "People hurt each other all the time. If they don't understand something, they call it 'crazy,' 'mad.' And they didn't understand."

Mokae has experience with Fugard's work. The two began their theater careers together in South Africa during its apartheid. Fugard and Mokae also played brothers in "Blood Knot," a Fugard play, which drew international attention.

Mokae left Africa in the 1960s for London, then landed in New York where he received a 1982 Tony Award for his performance in Fugard's "Master Harold and the Boys." He moved to Las Vegas more than 20 years ago and has directed several other local productions, including August Wilson's "Fences."

Regarding "The Road to Mecca," Mokae said, "It's a very interesting play. You still have some politics in this one. They're just not overt."

The production is set in the 1970s in the desert region in which Martins lived. Alone after her husband died, Martins spends years surrounding herself by the stone, glass and mirror sculptures inspired by dreams, desires, poetry of Amar Omar Khayyam and even kitschy objects.

With the help of assistant Koos Malgas, scores of camels, owls, serpents, mythical and biblical figures are built behind the house.

When age hampers Martins, she is confronted by a pastor who wants to place her in a home, while Elsa, a young friend from Cape Town, strives to save her from encroaching self doubt and the conservative villagers who have ostracized her.

"It's this freedom they can't understand," Charlene Sher, who plays the role of Helen, said. "She didn't fit in. They couldn't understand what she was about. Now after her death, the only thing that brings people to that village is the Owl House."

Ironically, Martins' death by suicide in 1976 at the age of 78 turned her house into a tourist attraction and Martins into a legend. Today the home, called the Owl House, is surrounded by bed and breakfasts.

"When I'm finished with all her wonderful moments, I'm hoping the audience will be able to recognize and identify who she really is," Sher said. "She's a person with a great sense of humor, she's incredibly resourceful, very strong and she's very real."

However, Sher added, "She can't find the place in herself anymore. She can't find a way to go on."

Playing the role of Martins has been a longtime dream for Sher, a former South African from Cape Town.

"The whole play deals with light and darkness and her avoidance of darkness," Sher said. "I've been fascinated by this play because of one monologue on the darkness within."

And, she said, "It's fascinating what this woman did at the age of 65."

Additional cast members include Jeanmarie Simpson (artistic director of the Nevada Shakespeare Company) as Elsa, the young friend from Cape Town who comes to Helen's aid, and Ray Favero as the minister.

The production is presented by the Nevada Conservatory Theatre in association with the Nevada Shakespeare Company of Northern Nevada and is a project two years in the making.

Simpson and Sher originated the idea as a collaborative theatrical effort between the communities of Reno and Las Vegas. After agreeing on "The Road to Mecca" as their flagship project, their efforts were delayed when 9-11 affected possible funding.

But, Sher said, "Everything in life is timing. Things have dovetailed."

And having Mokae directing the production is invaluable.

"He started all these Athol Fugard plays in South Africa," Sher said. "He's an interesting minimalist actor interested in rudiments of truth. He brings to it so many other references and other references in other Fugard plays that ordinarily we wouldn't be aware of."

Simpson, Sher said, shares a similar personality to the character of Elsa.

"She's just like Elsa. She's strident and vociferous in her voice for the underdog," Sher said.

Though the production mirrors Fugard's own struggle as a playwright, the relationship between Elsa and Helen gives the production its voice.

"Be true to yourself," Sher said. "Be true to who you really are because that's how you thrive in life.

"And if you can find at least one other person who can allow you that freedom, then you are validated. You have the strength to carry on, to be as fulfilled and as real as you can in your life."