He had his phone tapped, his mail opened and his daily life reported to his government by the spy next door. Along the way, he also created one of the great bodies of work in world drama.

What a thrill, really, that the Signature Theatre has chosen South African playwright and provocateur Athol Fugard as the first resident playwright of its inaugural season in the company's new Frank Gehry-designed complex. Not incidentally, June 11 will be Fugard's 80th birthday.

And how fitting, as in synergistically elegant, that the Roundabout Theatre will preface the Signature's three-play Off-Broadway series with an exquisitely cast Broadway revival from a very different place in Fugard's repertory, "The Road to Mecca."

"Mecca," written in 1984 and opening Tuesday, stars the formidable Rosemary Harris as an elderly widow who becomes an outcast in her South African desert community after building bizarre monumental sculptures in her yard. Jim Dale is the Afrikaner parson trying to commit her to a home, while Carla Gugino plays her young friend, a teacher, with her own churning conflicts.

Gordon Edelstein, director of the revival, calls Fugard "undeniably one of the greatest living playwrights in the English language." He describes the play as a "meditation and examination of the responsibilities and consequences of the artistic impulse."

"Mecca," only peripherally about apartheid, is one of Fugard's least overtly political plays from that period. Far more typical and formative is "Blood Knot," which kicks off the Signature tribute Feb. 16.

"Blood Knot" was his first major work, written in 1961, when blacks and whites had never acted onstage in his country. It was only performed once there. Fugard -- part Afrikaner, part Englishman -- played the light-skinned brother who tried "passing," but retreated in guilt for his people. The extraordinary Zakes Mokae, who died in 2009, was his co-star for Fu- gard's American debut in 1964 and again for the revival in 1985.

Fugard is also directing "Blood Knot" here. James Houghton, artistic director of the Signature, told Newsday, "I am so inspired by his intelligence, empathy, humor and energy as he wears the hats of both playwright and director in the rehearsal room."

During an early rehearsal, Fugard announced that he is dedicating the production to Mokae and to Barney Simon, who founded South Africa's identity-shaking multiracial Market Theater in 1976. "Zakes paid a heavy price for working with me," he told his new cast, describing how the actor was "kicked around" by the police.

For four amazing decades after "Blood Knot," New York theatergoers got a new message from Fugard every couple of years. When I interviewed him in 1980, he resisted being described as a political playwright. "I hate the word," he said, looking like a cross between Humphrey Bogart, Samuel Beckett and a woolly sidekick from an old Western.

"I think my work has enjoyed its success," he said then, "because, apart from the politics, I tell human stories."

It may be hard for post-apartheid generations to imagine the impact of those stories. In the '60s, apartheid had a better chance of appearing on a spelling bee than the evening news.

In the early days, the messages were urgent and a little exotic, startling portraits of ordinary people strangled by realities of a faraway world.

Fugard, who had to officially register his actors as domestic servants, helped us understand the humanity of his country far more than did news bites about crying children or rifles in the streets of squalid forced homelands. Never a pamphleteer, he created real people whose fates we actually worried about as violence made headlines.

For me, the excitement of this season is "My Children! My Africa!," which begins previews May 1. Inexplicably underrated when it had its premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop in December 1989, this is an intimate play about people torn apart by both the anguished debate and the formless rage of social change. Two months after it opened here, Nelson Mandela was freed from prison, releasing a complicated swell of idealism and factionalism.

For months after, I'd see stories about black-on-black violence and wonder what was happening to the drama's three characters -- an aging black teacher in a segregated township, a prodigy with the potential to break out and a girl from a posh white school. The plot, based on a news item about the murder of a teacher during a protest, made it impossible to reduce these people to screaming reports about mobs, youth gangs, informers and treason.

Fugard, a white writer in a black revolution, will never be the president of his country, as was Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, who died in December. More disturbingly, Fugard was not completely welcomed by any side in his country's struggle. It made me furious in 1990 to read South African playwrights in American papers questioning his authenticity.

In 2005, the film version of Fugard's novel, "Tsotsi," won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. Moviegoers will also recognize the hollows in his face from "Gandhi" and "The Killing Fields."

He and his wife have dual citizenship now. They live in San Diego and have a home in a village in the Karoo, the South African desert that figures in so much of his work. And Cape Town has a Fugard Theater, where his latest play, "The Train Driver," opened in 2010. It begins previews at the Signature in August.

In the 2002 "Sorrows and Rejoicings," one of his lesser post-apartheid works, he still created a character who, unforgettably, warned the new South Africa to embrace the value of yesterday's poets. "You are going to need all the love you can get," she said, "No matter where it comes from."

This year, it comes from here.

FUGARD SEASON, Signature Theatre Center, 480 W. 42nd St., through the summer.

'THE ROAD TO MECCA,' American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., through March 4.

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