'My Children! My Africa!' When: Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through Dec. 22.
Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.
Tickets: $10 to $30.
Call: (410) 332-0033.
*** "My Children! My Africa!" is Athol Fugard's theatrical testimony to the power of words. And in Center Stage's vivid production, the power of the playwright's mighty pen is displayed in every speech the characters utter.
Considering the theme, it is understandable that this latest work the acclaimed South African writer is a talky script. Set in 1984 -- a time of rising turbulence -- the action begins with a debate between a gifted student at a black township school and a visiting pupil from an all-white girls' school. And indeed, debate becomes a metaphor for the entire play, which questions whether negotiation or force is the more effective means of implementing change.
Like most Fugard works, "My Children! My Africa!" uses a small cast to tackle a large issue. But even though Center Stage's three actors -- and particularly Victor Mack as the black student -- can be stirringly persuasive, Lisa Peterson's direction frequently has a static quality, and the black-and-white color scheme of Derek McLane's set seems too simplistically symbolic.
But back to Mr. Mack, whose energy makes these difficulties seem slight. From the outset, he portrays Thami Mbikwana as not only friendly and winning, but also highly conflicted; there's always tension near the surface. An avid student, Thami has spent his scholastic life willingly serving as teacher's pet, a situation that has reached its apex in his current relationship with the teacher known affectionately as Mr. M.
For Mr. M -- played a bit too hesitantly by Moses Gunn, despite his commanding physical presence -- Thami is the pupil he has waited for all of his life. The student is proof of the teacher's success in spite of the government's enforced inferior curriculum. Even more, Thami is the son he never had. It is a tribute to Mr. Mack's complex portrayal that he makes us feel not only Thami's pride in this relationship, but also his rebellion against it.
As the white outsider in this increasingly tense classroom, Kathleen McNenny portrays Isabel Dyson as bright, vivacious and eager to shed her sheltered upbringing. Though she senses the dangerous rift growing between old-fashioned Mr. M and his street-smart surrogate son, she is powerless to prevent it. However, it is her voice that sounds the play's most hopeful final note.
In one beautifully realized scene, Mr. M picks up a dictionary in his right hand and a rock in his left, explaining that though they weigh the same, one contains the whole English language, and the other, just one word. Like a good debate, this script -- and Center Stage's production -- presents its various viewpoints so convincingly, the audience is swayed by each in turn. And yet, in the end, one can only be grateful that Mr. Fugard opted for the dictionary instead of the rock.