My Children! My Africa!
Directed by Serge Seiden
Produced by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
No one writes like Athol Fugard. And nothing touches like a Fugard drama. He sets up scenes with such amazing grace and develops such true-to-life characters that you feel that you not only know them, but have known them for years. Watching his dramas unfold is more like living them, they’re so actively engaging without a passive moment in sight. My Children! My Africa! currently playing at Studio Theater, is a stunning example of Fugard’s virtuosity as a writer, a chronicler of a period, and revealer of souls, by showing his striking ability to capture and relate intense moments of human interactions.
Set in early 1980’s South Africa, the play relates what happens when two bright young high schoolers and their teacher, living on the crumbling edges of apartheid, try to push through the ugly racial barriers with a love of literature, debate, and education. It opens with the two students giving their all in closing arguments of a debate about gender equality. The outward presentation is a display of typical adolescent enthusiasm, the young black male Thami, played by Yaegel T. Welch, supporting the traditional role while Isabel, played by the impassioned and spirited Veronica del Cerro, tackles the status quo while the teacher listens attentively from a podium styled desk upstage. The students banter back and forth, first in loud shouting matches, until the teacher takes hold and with gentle yet firm guidance, directs them both into making solid, defendable positions. From the first moments, the characters are established, especially the teacher’s role in grooming his students with loving attentiveness. His mission unfolds as the play progresses, to provide an intellectual escape route for his young charge, out of the poverty and degradation, the chanties of black slums. The teacher is determined and resolute in his mission and allows himself to see nothing but his ultimate goal-his prize student, the one with promise and oratory gifts, winning a debate scholarship that will launch him out of the squalor that surrounds him.
Fugard sets up the premise with such skill that the possibilities actually seem achievable, in fact, just out of reach. The hard part has already been accomplished- partnering with a white school, finding a willing and able team mate for Thami, the rest is just follow through. And that’s when Fugard starts to hint at the stark reality of the situation. He doesn’t snatch the rug out from under our feet as much as he pulls at it steadily and surely, dropping hints and subtle passages until slowly you realize you’re in a completely different place than the world as originally perceived– what seemed like real possibilities just moments before may as well be light years away, and what seemed just barely out of reach was really a far away dream.
The script, the language and images are breathtaking, and can literally produce audible gasps. Described as a lyrical writer, Fugard’s passages have an ebb and flow in a sort of rhythmic cadence. Combine his own words with those of other literary greats- Shelly, Keats, the old guard heard when the students recite from memory to test each other’s recollection for exercise – and it’s a literary paradise.
The superb casting seals the deal with a talented trio. At the center is the teacher, Mr. M, played by James Brown-Orleans who is a force of nature. Brown-Orleans has an intensity and ferocious energy that fills the stage –this role is perfect for him. Never in repose, he even listens with laser beam intensity, moving with sharp agility as he paces with the urgency of a newly caged lion. Just listen to him roar. Yaegel Welch, who played Thami with Glynn Turman in Philadelphia last year, also has a raw, compelling energy. Cerro is particularly effective as Isabel, bright eyed and eager to make a difference. Isabel is all bounce and daring, determined with relish and excitement to fashion her own life, and thrash through unexplored territory along the way. We see through her eyes to catch a glimpse of the dream of what could be. She’s the one who defied parents, friends, society to travel across town to form an allegiance with Thami, who cherished being included as one of the teacher’s “children,”. She is the one whose dream, shared only with Mr. M, is dashed beyond all recognition in the heartbreaking finale.
The production values are all in perfect alignment beginning with Serge Seiden’s no nonsense direction using the sparse set effectively, directing the actors through the roller coaster range of emotions without going over the top. Even the music selections, sound design by Neil McFadden, were on target starting with a fun, up-tempo intro and transitioning to a more somber rendition for the second act.
The politics in South Africa are different now, Nelson Mandela has been liberated for over a decade. Even the Truth and Reconciliation Commission trials are history. But the tensions are still there… as well as here. Wherever there are classes of disenfranchised people, there are parents and teachers plotting ways to help the children escape the poverty that beckons and the degradation that awaits them. As such, Fugard’s piece is timeless and eternal. Selecting this production for the season opener for their 30th anniversary is a stunning reminder of why Studio has a premiere position in the Washington theater community.
(Running time: approx 2.5 hours with 1 intermission) My Children! My Africa! is playing at Studio Theater, 1501 14th St, N.W. (14 & P) through Oct 14. Showtimes are Wednesday -Saturday 8pm (also several Tuesday performances) , Saturday-Sunday matinees 2pm, Sunday 7pm. For additional information, call 202- 332-3300 or consult the website.
Jaegel T. Welch (Tambi) has some interesting comments on his role. Read the interview with Joel Markowitz here
Trey Graham . City Paper