A straightforward `Statement' at festival

Athol Fugard drama, exploring sexual relationships, resonates today

Theater Column

December 14, 2006|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,sun theater critic

Athol Fugard's Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act is a romantic tragedy written in response to mid-20th-century South African legislation that prohibited interracial sexual relations. Seen halfway around the world three decades after its premiere, the play still resonates, but this time it may suggest relationships most American legislation doesn't deign to recognize.

Like tragedies dating back to the Greeks, the end of Statements is evident from the beginning -- in this case, a glimpse of a mixed-race couple immediately after love-making. And, like most of Fugard's work written during apartheid, the play is a dramatic protest.

The plot, based on a real-life arrest, is simple and straightforward. The action, however, symbolizes "the constant emasculation of Manhood by the South African `way of life' -- guilt, prejudice and fear, all conspiring together finally to undermine the ability to love directly and forthrightly," the playwright explained in his Notebooks: 1960-1977.

Part of Run of the Mill Theater's South African Play Festival at the Theatre Project, director Jenny Tibbels' production emphasizes the literal over the symbolic. This literalness stems partly from Corin B. Self's rather pedestrian portrayal of the male half of the couple -- Errol, a married school principal, who is "Coloured" -- the South African term for a person of mixed race. As played by Self, Errol appears relatively weak-willed from the start.

Courtney Weber's character, a single, white librarian named Frieda, claims to be afraid of "everything." But it is Frieda who initiated the affair with Errol. Weber's candid portrayal shows us a woman all too aware of her insecurities and what she considers her physical shortcomings.

Flawed though these two characters may be, the play leaves no doubt that the government bears the deepest flaw. As the arresting detective, Chris Graybill displays -- but does not overdo -- the smug superiority of an officer whose authority stems from a system based on man's inhumanity to man. This detective prides himself on his ability to -- unquestioningly -- administer the law.

During part of the testimony, the detective takes a seat in the front row of the audience. At that moment, he is one of us. Like him, we are judging the couple. This may be director Tibbels' way of reminding us that, even though apartheid has ended, governmental interference with personal relationships will continue as long as such issues as gay marriage remain politically volatile.

Statements continues at 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday and 5 p.m. Dec. 30-31. Tickets are $16. Sunday's matinee will be followed at 5 p.m. by a free panel discussion on South African theater.

Here are the remaining festival events: Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, written by Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, 8 p.m. Dec. 21-23 and 28-31, 3 p.m. Dec. 24; staged readings of Missing, by Reza de Wet, 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, and Black Codes from the Underground, by Duma Ndlovu, Gregory Holtz Sr. and Layding Kaliba, 8 p.m. Dec. 26 and 27; dance workshops by Lesole's Dance Project, noon and 1 p.m. Dec. 30. All performances are at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Call 410-796-1555 or visit runof themilltheater.org.

2 play readings

The Baltimore Playwrights Festival will present readings Saturday of two plays under consideration for the 2007 season. Julie Lewis' Jarvis Legend's Borrowed Skin will be read at 1 p.m., and Steven Kilduff's Graven Image will be read at 3 p.m. in the second-floor theater at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St. Admission is free. A discussion will follow each reading. For more information, visit baltimoreplaywrightsfestival.org.

j.wynn.rousuck@baltsun.com

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