The Train Driver stars Dawid Minnaar. Picture: Supplied
Before that December in 2000, when she became a headline, Pumla Lolwana had been happily married. And playwright Athol Fugard was living in America.

Lolwana and her children, Lindani, 2, Andile, 3, and Sisanda, 4, died when a Khayelitsha-bound train hit them. It is said while walking, Lolwana told her companions she was tired and proceeded to stand on the railway track, between Philippi and Nyanga. 

Lolwana pulled her children towards her, turned back to the oncoming train and looked down.

A few years later, Fugard took the time to write a play to commemorate Lolwana and her children’s memory. He called it The Train Driver, and its premise is that it documents the fictional tale of a tormented train driver who is compelled to visit a makeshift graveyard in the middle of nowhere, determined to find the unmarked grave of the woman he unintentionally killed.

Speaking to Brent Meersman for the Mail & Guardian a few years ago, Fugard said he had felt compelled to deal with Lolwana’s death. Furthermore, he said the play had been the most important one he had ever written.

The Train Driver forms part of a rich portfolio of work spanning more than half a century that proudly carries Fugard’s name. He has for many years used his skills as a playwright to document the experiences of South Africans. To commemorate this the Market Theatre will re-stage The Train Driver as well as Nongogo over the next two months.

The Train Driver stars Dr John Kani and Dawid Minnaar. Picture: Supplied

The Train Driver, under the direction of Charmaine Weir-Smith, starring an old friend of Fugard’s, Dr John Kani, and veteran actor Dawid Minnaar, opened last week at the Market Theatre. Weir-Smith said her first experience of Fugard’s work was through her tertiary studies.

“In 1989, I was in my first year in university and I was introduced to Boesman and Lena and Hello and Goodbye. I think that moment started a love affair with Fugard’s writing, but also, with the apartheid era, there was a bravery with telling stories. 

"From then on, I can safely say I’ve read all of his work and I have always had a passion for the way he writes because I think in terms of understanding the nuances and complexities of South Africans, he tackles that really, really well,” she explained.

Weir-Smith said there was a rawness and vulnerability to the way Fugard layered his characters. “There’s something so special about how he allows his characters to be completely naked and bare to their emotions. I have attempted to incorporate this in my own work as an actress.”

The Train Driver. Picture: Supplied

Working on The Train Driver with Weir-Smith is a cast and crew committed to bringing the story to life. At the centre are Kani and Minnaar.

“It has been absolutely incredible. I knew Dawid - he and I performed together years ago - and Dr Kani I’d met through theatre, but we hadn’t worked together. The process has been an absolutely joyous one. Both men are wonderfully creative. 

"They are incredibly generous, with each other and with me. I really think it’s been a collaboration between the three of us. You can’t work with such an intimate text and not allow yourself to give it all your attention,” Weir-Smith said.

The Train Driver stars Dr John Kani. Picture: Supplied

About why people should see the production, Weir-Smith said: “It’s a surprisingly uplifting piece. It’s uplifting in a way that you don’t expect and it’s a slice of our South African life. I think that people, young or old, should support South African theatre. 

Especially someone like Athol Fugard, who writes from a place of knowing and living,”she said.

Fugard, 86, is still writing enchanting productions we cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.

* The Train Driver is on at the Market Theatre until June 3.

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