I was very happy to get a ticket for last night's performance of Athol Fugard's My Children! My Africa! at the new Signature Theatre space. It was presented in the smallest space, the Linney Theater, which was a perfect venue for this piece. A three-character, one-set play needs to have a feeling of confined space. The use of barbed wire and corrugated tin in the set only helped with the claustrophobic feel. I will say that, at times, I felt as if my seat was a little too far from the action (I was in the balcony) and I missed a bit in the way of lighting effects and entrances and exits. And, when the actors were turned away from me, it was hard to hear. But, on the whole, anywhere you sit in the theater is fine. And the $25 tickets are truly the best deal in town.
You may remember that I am predisposed to enjoy an Athol Fugard play - I find them moving in the extreme. Even though they were mainly written before the end of (and railed against) apartheid, the pain and rage and divisiveness he details in his work still applies to society today. Unfortunately. A good thing about My Children! My Africa!, at least to me, is that Fugard tries to see both sides of the conflicts. No one is presented as evil, just perhaps naive and idealistic, even on opposite ends of the spectrum.
On the surface, presenting these ideas in the form of debate (our characters are two students on a debate team and their dedicated teacher) would seem to be an overly simplistic way to put this piece together. Having the characters debate topics directly to the audience, and also present their monologues in direct address, adds to the didactic feel. But, gradually, hearing the internal thoughts of these characters as the horrifying actions are played out off-stage, makes things even more horrifying.
Stephen Tyrone Williams as Thami, the young Bantu student who evolves from a charming studious boy to a militant soon-to-be-warrior, is terrific. His monologue that closes the first act is riveting, as he fights the two sides of himself and realizes what he has to do. He has a nice chemistry with actress Allie Gallerani, as a white Afrikaner girl from a private school nearby. I found her a little actress-y, but nonetheless convincing as a girl waking up to the fact of the inequity of her life compared to her new friend's.
I thought James A Williams was simply brilliant as the schoolteacher, known to his kids as Mr M. He shows so many facets to this character - his kindness, his dedication, his passion for teaching and his complete and utter blindness to the changes going on around him. His love for his student, Thami, is palpable. Their penultimate scene, when he's trying to convince Thami that the power of words is greater than the power of mob violence, is heartbreaking. And then, his speeches at the end are harrowing - first as he describes the violence that is heading towards him (the ringing of the schoolbell was just devastating to me) and then when he accepts responsibility for what his blindness has wrought. I was sobbing, which I guess is de rigeur for me. :)
The play is beautifully staged by actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, though I did think there was an awful lot of unnecessary fiddling with backpacks. Was there really no other business for students to do in that school room? But that's a quibble. Oh, and I can't forget to mention the interstitial music by Bobby McFerrin. Hearing his vocal stylings in the context of the play was really stirring.
My Children! My Africa! just got another extension at the Signature, so you should definitely check it out. Yes, the first act feels a little long in the middle, and, yes, there's a bit of repetition in the monologues and debates, but these are also quibbles. This is a first-rate, moving play being given a first-rate, moving production. I'm so glad I saw it. I can't wait to see Fugard's The Train Driver later this fall...
**Six years ago, I caught the Off-Broadway production of Spring Awakening at the Atlantic and had no idea it would become a Broadway hit; two years ago, I saw the revival of Lend Me a Tenor (meh); last year, I saw one of my favorite new plays of recent memory, Rajiv Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo...