Everyman's `Africa' takes on apartheid and rebellion


March 17, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The latest play at Everyman Theatre is about the dangers of sacrificing your friends and greatest allies when your cause is just, but your means are not.

This isn't a modern-day drama about the United States' foreign policy. It's a 1989 drama set in South Africa and written by that country's pre-eminent playwright, Athol Fugard.

My Children! My Africa! takes place in a black township in 1985, a time of intense racial rebellion. Like most of Fugard's plays, its canvas is small; the majority of the action occurs in a classroom, and the cast consists of only three people: a black teacher, his prize male student and a privileged white schoolgirl who visits the school to participate in a debate.

A play set in the era of - and focusing on - apartheid in South Africa could seem dated. But as its applicability to today's international situation suggests, My Children! My Africa! has a far broader thematic reach.

The interaction among Fugard's three characters raises such issues as freedom, race relations, cross-cultural understanding, friendship, loyalty, self-determination and, not surprisingly, considering the classroom setting, the importance of education. The power with which these themes come through at Everyman is a tribute to director Donald Hicken's staging as well as Fugard's writing.

The playwright's craftsmanship shines in this work, which, in lesser hands, might have become a talky exercise. At nearly three hours (including intermission), it's not a short evening, but it's one in which every detail is an intrinsic part of the whole, and many details work on several levels. For example, the subject that the two students, Thami and Isabel, are debating at the beginning of the play is the education of women. But what seems to be merely a scholastic contest is actually much more.

For starters, it's a way for Fugard to introduce his characters. As Thami and Isabel, Lance Coadie Williams and Megan Anderson ably convey their characters' enthusiasm and keen intelligence. Frederick Strother, as Thami's teacher, affectionately called Mr. M, also exhibits these traits, but they're coupled with his role as mediator and the voice of reason.

The debate format also neatly establishes the structure of the play, whose scenes are interspersed with soliloquies, addressed - as was the debate - directly to the audience.

But most important, the topic of parity in education for women turns out to be a microcosm of the play's larger, overall debate about the struggle for freedom and equality. As Isabel points out in her passionate closing statement: "The argument against equality for women ... is an argument that can very easily be used against any other `different' group."

Thami and Isabel's competition is so successful, it spurs Mr. M to enter them as a team in an interschool English literature quiz. The scene in which they practice for this event bristles with the exhilaration of scholarship for scholarship's sake. In one especially felicitous directorial touch, the young actors stand at opposite corners of the stage, each with hands clasped; then, calling out their answers, they fling open their hands as if releasing bursts of knowledge. It's a gesture Williams repeats in a heartrending moment in Thami's final scene.

Unbeknown to Mr. M, Thami is pulling away from the joys of education and from his relationship with his teacher, whose plans for his favorite pupil's future do not jibe with Thami's plans for himself. A local actor whose considerable talents continue to blossom, Williams does a stirring job depicting the inner turmoil of this bright young man who gets caught up in an uprising he fervently believes in, even though its consequences prove tragic to those around him. (A serendipitous element may have deepened Williams' portrayal. An alumnus of the Baltimore School for the Arts, he has been directed here by one of his own former teachers, Hicken, who heads the theater department at that school.)

Anderson's earnest Isabel is caught between Thami and Mr. M, each of whom speaks openly to her, but not to each other. Isabel's position is awkward, but it's also a reflection of another of the play's themes - the power of words, and, conversely, the peril of withholding them.

Mr. M tells Thami, "If the struggle needs weapons, give it words." But it is this teacher's flaw that his attitudes are too old-fashioned to allow him to break through his authority-figure position and exchange words freely with Thami, as his equal.

In the end, My Children! My Africa! is its own best argument for what words can do. And with few exceptions - one being Strother's uneven accent - Everyman's production is an eloquent defense of that argument. That eloquence carries over to Dan Conway's set design, which surrounds the main playing area with a raised platform on which the actors deliver their soliloquies, as if these thoughtful monologues were fortress walls, built to protect the vulnerable schoolroom and its inhabitants.

Finely crafted as Fugard's play may be, however, it also has a minor defect - a concluding soliloquy by Isabel that not only feels tacked on and forced, but whose hopeful tone seems unjustified by the action that precedes it. Yet since this play premiered, history has justified Isabel's sentiments. And so, perhaps in addition to being a master playwright, Fugard is also a seer.

My Children! My Africa!

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through April 13

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

Admission: $15-$25

Call: 410-752-2208

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