Past the end of the traditional stage season here though it is, my theater partner Diana and I are right in the middle of the Athol Fugard series at the Signature Theater Company. Having enjoyed the production of Blood Knot back in February (see my report on ROT on 28 February), Diana and I went to the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row on Thursday evening, 31 May, to see Fugard’s 1989 play My Children! My Africa! in the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater. (We will be seeing the last play of the 2011-12 Residency One season, The Train Driver, this summer.)
The play, set in a small, east South African town in the fall of 1984 during the beginnings of the protests and uprisings in opposition to the so-called Bantu education imposed by the apartheid government on South Africa’s black majority, is Fugard’s treatise against the violent resistance of the African National Congress to not only the segregation of the classrooms but the curriculum that was taught in the black schools. There are three characters in My Children, a teacher and two young students. The teacher, Anela Myalatya, called Mr. M, is black and teaches in an academy for native students in the “Location,” the colloquial term for what we’d call the ghetto. Mr. M (James A. Williams) is an excellent, if idealistic, teacher, a Socratic mentor to Thami Mbikwana (Stephen Tyrone Williams), his prize pupil and an impassioned debater. As the play opens, Mr. M has been moderating a debate on women’s education between Thami and Isabel Dyson (Allie Gallerani), a girl from the upper-class white prep school whom Mr. M had invited to participate in the inter-school debate. The debate, a foreshadowing of the coming, more heated and passionate argument for a different kind of equality, has been a great success for everyone, though Isabel has won her argument in support of equal education for girls even though the audience is made up of Thami’s schoolmates and friends. The two 18-year-olds are on their way to becoming friends and intellectual equals, despite the barriers the country’s politics places between them. It has been Mr. M’s plan to defeat the system by showing the country and the world that, in spite of the unequal opportunities provided by the Bantu education under which he must teach, his native students are the intellectual equals of the best that the white society can field, and that beneath the skin color, the two communities can cooperate, develop, and accomplish good things if only the country would get out of the way.
In 1953, Prime Minister Daniel François Malan’s white minority government of the then-Union of South Africa (it became a republic in 1961), led by the white-supremacist National Party, passed the Bantu Education Act which established separate schools for blacks and whites. (Bantu is the catch-all term for native Africans, irrespective of their actual tribal membership. The “homelands” to which natives were assigned citizenship were known as Bantustans, usually in a pejorative connotation. I included a brief summary of the history of apartheid in South Africa in my report on Blood Knot.) The schools weren’t the only educational element that was decreed to be separate. Teacher salaries for the black schools were lowered substantially so that few candidates could be recruited, resulting in classes with one teacher to 50 students or more. In addition, the very curriculum that the native Africans were taught in their classrooms was different from what white students learned so that the native students were essentially trained for manual labor and servitude. Text books available for Bantu schools were not just out of date, but specially written and edited to omit information the government didn’t want its native population to have, and many texts and other materials were deliberately made available only in Afrikaans, a foreign language to most native Africans who viewed it as the language of the oppressor. Some dedicated teachers, like Mr. M in My Children, used games and tricks to teach their students how to think and reason as well as understand math, literature, and philosophy. It was against this system that the young people of South Africa, fed up with their inferior education—as Thami says in the play, the native schools are “traps which have been carefully set to catch our minds”—and the apparent passivity of their elders who seemed to be acquiescing to its continuation, rose up to fight in the middle 1980s. This is the milieu of Fugard’s play, and each of the three characters has a stake in the struggle, though the goals and dreams of each, all valid and even laudable by themselves, are different and, apparently, ultimately irreconcilable.
(I must add here that this awful and degrading situation in South Africa not only made me think of the Jim Crow era in this country, one struggle against which was the modern civil rights movement of the 1960s, but also the treatment in the U.S. of the American Indians in the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th. There are differences, of course, and in some instances the situation here was worse than the South African counterpart, and in others the African circumstances were direr. Nonetheless, the echoes are frightening and shameful.)
My Children! My Africa! was written in 1989, a few years after it’s set and a few years also before the end of apartheid, which occurred between 1990 and 1993 (culminating with the election in 1994 of Nelson Mandela as the first black president of South Africa). 1989 was also the year in which F. W. de Klerk replaced hard-liner P. W. Botha as president, the catalytic event, like the succession in the Soviet Union of Mikhail Gorbachev was for the end of communism, for the dismantling of the apartheid apparatus in South Africa. The play was first performed in June 1989 at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre and débuted in New York in December in a production of the New York Theatre Workshop at the Perry Street Theatre under the direction of the playwright. In the New York première, the role of Mr. M was played by Fugard’s long-time collaborator, John Kani; Isabel was played by the writer’s daughter, Lisa Fugard, and Thami was portrayed by Courtney B. Vance. (The current revival, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson for the Signature, opened for previews on 1 May and will close on 17 June.)
In Fugard’s play, everything starts off as a Pollyanna scenario. The debate between Thami and Isabel has come off perfectly, even for Thami, who lost. Mr. M has been vindicated, and the teens have each found a friend who can be both a window into a hither-to unknown world and a sounding board for newly forming thoughts and ideas. “I discovered a new world,” Isabel says sincerely, if somewhat disingenuously. Both the students and the faculties of each school seem to accept the encounter without any reservations or fears, and even Isabel’s parents want to meet her new friend and his remarkable teacher, about whom the young woman has been telling them at home. No one seems to be suspicious of anyone else, and there’s no hint of sexual tension—it’s not even mentioned (as if this were a 1950s TV show). Indeed, both students seem precocious not only in their intellect and academic achievements—in act two, they prepare for a competition in English literature by grilling each other on obscure facts and quotations pertaining to 19th-century poets and novelists—but in their ability to understand the artificiality of the gulf imposed between them and the misguidedness of the country that perpetuates the wasteful and dangerous division. Except that we can sense that something must be looming to create drama—it is Athol Fugard, after all, not some playwriting hack with no agenda—spectators might wonder what could possibly go wrong here. Are we simply going to watch this über-simpatico trio skip down the bunny trail into the proverbial sunset?
And something does, of course, happen. It’s not even a big surprise once the hints start dropping (or you read the lobby-display panel outside the theater before the show or during intermission). The whole play takes place in the Number One Classroom of Mr. M and Thami’s school (all other events, such as tea with the Dyson’s, are reported like the battles in a Greek tragedy), but unrest is generating outside in the Location streets. Meetings are being held in shops and homes at night, and the young, militant ANC members, the “comrades” who want to act, are calling for violent protests—first the toppling of the statues to the white heroes of Boer and English South Africa (“They’re not our statues,” argues Thami), then boycotting the Bantu schools, then burning them down, and finally the execution of collaborators and informants—any native African who’s even seen in the company of a white person. While Mr. M deplores the violence and advocates staying in school, gaining an education—“If the struggle needs weapons, give it words,” he insists—and defeating the apartheid forces in the long run rather than in the short, Thami is being drawn into the militant camp. At first, he just speaks approvingly of their aims and tactics, but we know he’s going to become active. Isabel, though she deplores the treatment she sees her friend and his people suffering, doesn’t understand the call to action or, more immediately, the need to pull away from all whites, even those who are sympathetic. Thami’s been getting more and more remote, finally dropping out of the literature competition, and Isabel senses that he’s ending their friendship. There’s nothing wrong between them, he explains, but the comrades won’t see it that way. The Pollyanna world has exploded: apartheid has made adversaries where none should ever have existed. I think that this, more than Mr. M’s call to stay in school and resist violence, is Fugard’s point in My Children! My Africa!—that the insidious evil of apartheid isn’t so much that it separates blacks, whites, and coloreds, or that it oppresses the disenfranchised majority, but that it makes enemies of natural friends and allies. If no one trusts anyone else, then society can’t heal or grow—like Orwell’s 1984 where a state of war with someone always exists. (Isn’t that part of what’s been going on in the Middle East for generations now?)
The problem with the play, and it doesn’t seem to be the fault of the director or the production, is that it’s more a history lesson and poli sci lecture than drama. Fugard doesn’t really preach, but he does lecture, not only from the mouth of Mr. M, who’s surely his stand-in in My Children, but from the two students and from the play overall. Each character has at least one long monologue which is both biographical and polemical, and an argument for his or her aspect of the then-current political struggle. I can’t imagine how the play works for a South African audience, either today or in 1989, but it seemed to me that Fugard had really written My Children for non-South Africans. It’s so literal and on-the-nose that there’s little more in it than facts and reenacted scenarios of the time. After Thami has become entirely coopted by the comrades, he tries to explain to Mr. M and then Isabel what they stand for, and it sounds exactly like a polemic from a young man off the streets—more impassioned perhaps than real life might have made him—doing the same thing with his parents, his teacher, or a white friend. Furthermore, since it is all history now, if you read a newspaper back then, you know where everyone’s going to go. (I’d guess, even in 1989, a half decade after the events of the play, most theater audiences would have known where the characters would all end up. Perhaps even more then, as fresh as the events were at the première, than now, 23 years later, when some young spectators might not know the end-game of apartheid.)
The false promise of the opening scene, which seems to suggest that Fugard’s going to explore the tentative friendship of two young people from opposite ends of the society in the dying days of apartheid, made the play seem potentially more engrossing than it turns out to be. Very little ends up happening between Thami and Isabel—that tea with the Dyson’s that looked so dramatically promising not only takes place off stage, but passes by with barely a mention. In his New York Times review of the 1989 production, Frank Rich observed, “It's almost as if Mr. Fugard were a chaperone afraid to leave the two kids alone in a room, for fear that they might get out of his tight control,” because the two young characters never once share a moment of personal revelation or relaxed openness. And though the actors aren’t really at fault, I couldn’t help feeling that the stiffness of the characters, their guardedness and wariness, was the effect on the acting of the lack of human vulnerability in the written characters. It occurred to me after the performance that neither actor ever touched the other, or seemed to want to. Given the racial divide mandated by apartheid, that might have been an almost explosive moment—even just a friendly instance of contact—but it never happened or even threatened to.
The production of the Signature revival, at 2½ hours-plus playing time, is fine for the most part. This was my first show in the little Linney Courtyard, the company’s variable-space theater which was set up this time in a thrust configuration with audience on three sides, plus a small balcony in the front. Neil Patel designed the little classroom as spare, with only a plain wooden table and chair for Mr. M in the up right corner, another plain chair for Isabel and a chair with an arm-desk down left for Thami. The backdrop evokes both the back wall of the room and the wire fence outside the building with scraggly brush and a lone, spindly tree which suggests that even in this barren and scrub terrain, some life might dare to grow. Above the rear of the set (in other audience-performer configurations, it’d be another balcony) is more brush and the corrugated tin roof of the school building, the common construction material Fugard tells us is used for most of the structures in the Location. With Marcus Doshi’s lighting, which helps depict the space as functional but characterless and drab, the set serves principally as an arena, the center of the room being bare of furniture unless one of the characters moves a chair into it. (It’s necessary, of course, that director Santiago-Hudson move his actors around the stage so that all three sides of the audience get to see them. The empty set allows for that shifting without impediment, of course, and, except for Mr. M, the characters are imbued with energy that prevents them from sitting anywhere for long so that they are nearly always on the move.) Karen Perry’s costumes are appropriate without overstating their point—Isabel wears a green school uniform (a hockey kit in one scene) to reinforce the idea that she’s from an upper-class academy, Thami wears neat but casual attire (and a soccer—well, football in his culture—outfit after a game), and Mr. M is dressed in a jacket and tie in conservative tones like a school master might have worn here in the ’50s or ’60s. Santiago-Hudson chose music by multi-Grammy Award-winner Bobby McFerrin for the revival, adding an element of contemporaneity to the production as well as helping enliven the talky scenes.
All the actors demonstrate terrific enthusiasm for their roles and the points they make; it seemed to me that they were all thoroughly committed to Fugard’s themes and ideas. (Given that Santiago-Hudson sees current relevance in the events of 1984 depicted in My Children, this isn’t surprising. “Circumstances have changed in some ways,” the director insists, “but people are still racist and denying others their rights.”) There’s not a little of the stereotype in all three characters as written, so it’s not surprising that the actors all fall into that pattern in performance. I don’t see how they or Santiago-Hudson could have worked around that anyway, Fugard having written essentially a role-play rather than a fully rounded drama. Thami’s character is a little more varied than the others, so Stephen Tyrone Williams has more subtle shifts with which to work and he does so quite well, if a tad over-emphatically; Allie Gallerani and James A. Williams remain true to the figures, two-dimensional though Fugard painted them. (The two Williamses don’t appear to be related.) Isabel, however, isn’t as easy to play as she might seem initially. She requires Gallerani to be simultaneously naïve and strong, and the actress mostly carries this off convincingly. At the end of the play, when Thami tells Isabel they can no longer be friends, Gallerani gives us a glimpse of what she’s capable of, suppressing her hurt and confusion—as much as she wants to, she has no idea what Thami’s going through—at what she can only see as a personal matter. Aside from this, the only quibble I have with the performances is that, at least to my ear, the characters’ accents, especially the two students’, wobble a little: Thami is Xhosa, but Stephen Williams seems to slip into Italian dialect occasionally, and Isabel’s an English South African, but Gallerani doesn’t seem to be sure if she’s British or Afrikaner now and then. (South African dialects can be tricky, as Joe Dziemianowicz of the Daily News observes—he thought the cast did well with them—and I’ll confess that my ear may not be so expert as to make this judgment definitively.)
The press mostly agrees about the pedagogical nature of My Children! My Africa!, though Ben Brantley in the New York Times plays it down to a passing mention (he invokes the reviews of 23 years ago, but essentially dismisses the complaint). “Hope has broken loose in Athol Fugard’s ‘My Children! My Africa!,’” Brantley writes, and goes on to praise the cast, the director, and the writer in expansive terms. “Between Athol Fugard’s potent script and the cast that brings it vividly to life, Signature’s new production of ‘My Children! My Africa!’ packs a one-two wallop,” asserts Dziemianowicz in the News. “It deserves both of those exclamation points.” He does, however, note, “A Fugard play is always a talky affair,” and suggests that the 90-minute first act could be “pruned.” Even Michael Feingold states, “Fugard's prose, though sometimes a little over-methodical, never dampens the pain with which his play is fraught, and Santiago-Hudson's cast does it fearsomely discreet justice” in the Village Voice. Celebrating the audience’s “second chance” to experience “Fugard's toughest and most unflinchingly political play,” Linda Winer does comment in Newsday that “this snapshot of a moment before massive social change seems a bit like ancient history,” but ends entirely commending the Signature revival. In Variety, Marilyn Stasio acknowledges that “the early classroom scenes . . . are overlong and overdone,” but she states firmly that “‘My Children! My Africa!’ doesn't feel the least bit dated in Signature's stirring revival production.”
In the New York Post, however, Elisabeth Vincentelli complains that “the second act isn’t good enough to make up for the slog preceding it,” though she likes Santiago-Hudson’s direction. “But most of the time, ‘My Children! My Africa!’ relies on earnest speechifying,” Vincentelli concludes, admonishing, “A teachable moment doesn’t have to feel like a lecture.” In Time Out New York, David Cote sums up his evaluation, “If the structure is often dull, the writing at least is serious and resonant, and the actors are fully committed.” Possibly the most negative review, though, appeared in New York magazine, where Scott Brown calls the play “a public intellectual’s none-too-subtle attack on both the apartheid regime and its chief opposition at the time, the African National Congress.” Brown continues by criticizing the characters: “The children in My Children! don’t sound like children: They sound like talking points.” He adds: “The play is really a slender one-act, only it’s rendered in two, both of them grotesquely overwritten; there’s only so much director Ruben Santiago-Hudson can do with it,” noting, however, that the actors “often succeed” in their efforts “to disguise” the script’s “total lack of dramatic propulsion.”