MY CHILDREN! MY AFRICA! Send This Review to a Friend
Athol Fugard’s play “My Children! My Africa!,” currently getting a revival by the Signature Theatre, is extremely polemical, but true to form, Fugard builds his searing points by presenting characters who come to life in the cauldron of South Africa before the overthrow of apartheid. Three superb performances express conflicting perspectives as the drama builds to a shattering climax. The speeches reflect the playwright’s propensity for making statements, but those who deliver them reach us with emotional power.
It is the autumn of 1984 and the setting is a school in a small Eastern Cape Karoo town in South Africa. James A. Williams plays Mr. M, a dedicated black teacher who has made education his life’s work. He is old-fashioned in his exaltation of learning, both for its own sake and for the opportunity education can offer. He is clearly on the side of advancement for his people, but through an orderly process, not through revolution and violence. Mr. M is the sort of teacher to revere and to remember long after having left his classroom.
As we tune in there is a lesson in debating under way. Stephen Tyrone Williams plays black student Thami Mbikwana, a spirited, bright young man who is clearly gifted with the potential for learning and accomplishment. Debating him on the subject of the role of women is feisty Allie Gallerani, playing Isabel Dyson, a student from a white academy. Subsequently, Mr. M groomd them for a literary competition. The students are an example of the interplay that could flourish in a free and equal society. But there is underlying, unspoken tension. Isabel delights in friendship with Thami, but the very openness of her unprejudiced attitude toward him reveals a lack of being able to grasp the volatility of current conditions and the pain Thami endures daily.
Gallerani is delightful in her portrayal of this smart, admirable young woman with proper values. Her parents want her to bring Thami to tea, but the invitation rattles him, as he feels he does not belong in such a situation and that hobnobbing with whites would be a betrayal of his revolutionary comrades. Those feelings are symptomatic of the conflicts that rage within him. We can see the confrontations coming.
Mr. M is regarded by militants as someone who has sold out his people. He is totally against a strike of students that has been called, and as he sees it, they are throwing away their chance to gain by being educated. On the other hand, Thami thinks along the lines of the militants and believes his duty lies with those fighting apartheid with every means available. He is appalled at something he learns that his teacher has done, but he still wants to protect him. Isabel is caught in the middle. She recognizes the greatness in Mr. M, and she feels it tragic that his life would be threatened by the very people he has been dedicated to helping.
Thus Fugard has laid out the issues, seen in personal terms, and we know there will be no happy resolution. Along the way we are stimulated and enlightened by the dynamic performances by the cast members playing the symbolic three. Stephen Tyrone Williams embodies perfectly the idealistic young South African black male who is determined to play a heroic role in the battle at hand. Gallerani skillfully shows us a lovely young woman who wants to do the right thing and ultimately realizes the force that drives her student colleague. James A Williams perfectly conveys the situation of a dedicated teacher who would rather die than succumb to what he sees as the diminishing of good sense and the assault against education as by-products of the fight for freedom.
Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson builds the intensity inherent in the writing as the play reaches its climax, followed by afterthoughts in picking up the pieces. He would appear to have encouraged the three cast members to go for broke and make the most of their roles, and accordingly, each gives a memorable, moving performance in service of the playwright’s complex vision. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-7529.