Off-Broadway Theater Review: MY CHILDREN! MY AFRICA! (Signature Theatre)

by Dmitry Zvonkov on May 28, 2012

in Theater-New York

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CHILDREN OF HOPE AND SORROW

We enter the theater, which has been configured thrust-style like an amphitheater, and take our seats. The tiny stage below has an unfinished cement floor, a small wooden desk with a chair behind it, and two more chairs, one plain and one with a tablet arm. Behind them is a makeshift wall, built from old, rusted corrugated panels, and crowned with coils of razor wire. The lights go out; all is blackness. Then faint music, primitive and distant, enters the darkness, as though by chance, as though echoing from a great distance across a vast African plain. The music (by Bobby McFerrin) gets louder, enveloping us like a mist, until finally we are overtaken. The lights ignite, music stops, and below us, on the stage, are three figures: an older black man, nearly bald, with a trimmed, graying beard, wearing glasses and dressed in a worn beige sport coat with patches on the elbows, brown cardigan, beige pants, clean white shirt, tie – he is a teacher and this is his only outfit; there is a handsome young black man, perhaps seventeen, in a shirt, tie, and sleeveless burgundy V-neck – a poor but proper schoolboy; and a white girl with golden blond hair, immaculate in her private-school uniform (costumes by Karen Perry).

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Off-Broadway Review of My Children! My Africa! At SignatureWe are witnessing a student debate in a black South African classroom, the setting for most of Signature Theater’s new production of Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! The topic is progress vs. traditionalism. Arguing for progress is the white girl, Isabel Dyson (played superbly by Allie Gallerani), who has come to the school on a sort of good-will debating exchange. Her opponent is Thami Mbikwana (the astonishing Stephen Tyrone Williams), the brightest and best student from his school and his teacher’s protégé. His teacher, in the sport coat, is Mr. M (an compelling James A. Williams), who organized the interscholastic competition and serves as its moderator.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Off-Broadway Review of My Children! My Africa! At SignatureWe’ve arrived just in time to hear the closing arguments, which Thami and Isabel make to us – it’s no accident that we are seated the way we are, as ancient Athenians might have sat, listening to philosophers sparring. In this way we are not merely watching the play, we become a part of its world, surrogates for the students witnessing the debate. We have been weaved into the reality of the proceedings and remain this way for the rest of the show, all our focus funneled down to the stage. At first, this setup is merely amusing. But its real dividends come down the line, when the debate turns from abstractions to a question of life and death. Ensnared, our emotions are at the mercy of events in the play which we cannot control, just as the characters find themselves enmeshed in a problem they are powerless to solve, an unsolvable problem in fact, with tragic consequences.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Off-Broadway Review of My Children! My Africa! At SignatureThe way the house is set up is not only effective but quite appropriate, as the play itself is a debate of sorts. The action takes place in the 1980s, during apartheid, and civil unrest is brewing. The blacks, especially the young ones, want an end to oppression and inequality. They want opportunity, they want freedom. And they want to smash the old system and everything connected to it. Together they are a mob, an uneducated, stupid, angry mob, and Thami, a bright, kind young man, finds himself drawn to their cause. We know he would prefer to join a disciplined, rational, erudite resistance, but such a resistance does not exist. Instead, his choice quickly becomes to either join the mob or to be viewed as an enemy by it. Mr. M, on the other hand, sees that no good will come of a violent uprising of vengeful illiterates. He has dedicated his whole life to education, to acquiring and passing on knowledge. He knows the power of thought and of words. And he knows that a mob neither thinks nor listens. Isabel sympathizes with both Thami and Mr. M. She loves both men and knows that they love each other, which makes it all the more tragic when she finds herself unable to stop the rift growing between them.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Off-Broadway Review of My Children! My Africa! At SignatureA danger with a play such as this one, where philosophical ideas are argued by characters, especially where it relates to a specific time and place in history, is that it come off preachy or corny. Director Rubin Santiago-Hudson masterfully avoids this pitfall by extracting from his actors such truthful and intense performances that there is never a question as to how immediate and real everything they are saying is for them. The characters are completely authentic, as is their world. So even though the ideas in the play aren’t particularly revelatory, the way they are presented, by both playwright and director, makes the show brilliant and riveting.

It seemed a little conspicuous, with a beautiful girl in knee-high white sock and pleated plaid skirt on stage with two men, that nothing even remotely sexual happens. Maybe it isn’t supposed to. In any event, that was Mr. Santiago-Hudson’s interpretation. His direction is very straightforward, always staying on message – a choice that in this case is remarkably effective.

Dmitry Zvonkov’s Off-Broadway Review of My Children! My Africa! At SignatureTwo small things I found problematic. When, in Isabel’s monologues, she is recalling something, Ms. Gallerani’s technique falters ever so slightly, and for those brief moments she looks like she’s acting. Also, in the very last scene, a character gets up on a chair. At that moment the character is supposed to be atop a hill surrounded by the African plain. But this doesn’t quite work. For one thing, Marcus Doshi’s lighting, so effective throughout the show, does not isolate the character sufficiently; there is too much light on the rest of the set, which makes us feel like we are still in the classroom.

But those two points aside, My Children! My Africa! is a terrific show with some of the most powerful and well-crafted performances I have ever seen.

photos by Joan Marcus

My Children! My Africa!
Signature Theater in New York City (New York Theater)
scheduled to end on June 10, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org

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