South African playwright Athol Fugard is highly acclaimed for his plays, many of which opposed his country’s system of apartheid. In 1971, Fugard devised The Island with actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, and it made its area premiere at MetroStage in 1991.
To commemorate the 30th anniversary of MetroStage, the company is re-staging the production, with original actor Doug Brown returning to reprise his role of Winston, under the direction of Thomas W. Jones II.
The Island tells the story of the psychological and physical abuse suffered by black political prisoners in South Africa, using the prisoners’ anticipated performance of the Greek drama Antigone as a symbolic means of political protest.
During its initial run at MetroStage, Brown teamed with Mphela Makgoba, a South African actor who taught him a great deal about the mannerisms and accents that would help define his character.
“Carolyn [Griffin, MetroStage’s artistic director] had wanted to do this show again for a long time, and, this being the anniversary season, it seemed like the perfect time,” Brown says. “I jumped right on board. I have such a respect for the play itself. It’s fun to do and these two guys really get to play around with each other—there’s humor, a love they share being together for so long, and a camaraderie that’s built in.”
Playing opposite the 66-year-old Brown this time around is Michael Anthony Williams as his fellow prisoner, John.
“I’m elated to be working with him. I love working with Michael; he’s brilliant and an incredible actor,” Brown says. “He’s committed to whatever role he’s involved with and you know he’s going to get every bit out of it, and he’s there for you.”
Both actors were most recently seen in Two Trains Running at Round House Theatre, and that led to their re-teaming for The Island.
“Doug asked me while we were doing Two Trains, letting me know that it was going to be done as part of MetroStage’s anniversary season, because he knows I am a Fugard fanatic,” Williams says. “I immediately said yes.”
Since it’s been more than 30 years since Brown last set foot in the role, he’s made some changes to the character.
“There have been changes to me as a human, as an actor; I was different, not just younger, but a lot of things have happened to me in my life since then,” he says. “I’m apt to see things a little differently. One thing that stands out is our current state of affairs in this country and on Capitol Hill and in the White House. Twenty-five years ago I never would have thought it possible for a black man to be in the White House. All that’s going on with him, that makes this play more profound because there’s a statement of humanity it makes.”
Williams and Brown have shared the stage in multiple productions, and that has created a chemistry and trust that is sometimes hard to experience in the world of theatre.
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“When that happens, often times there are conversations that don’t need to be had, you know how the other guy will play certain moments,” Williams says. “One of the joys for me working with Doug is you don’t have to do the same show all the time. He’s not one of those cats that needs you to be mechanical. He lives in the moment and as an actor, I love working with people like that.”
Williams had performed in Fugard’s “MASTER HAROLD”… and the Boys as Sam at the Bay Theatre Company in 2012, and as Willie a decade earlier at Studio Theatre, with Jones directing.
“He creates such a rich message and tremendous flows of language,” Williams says about the legendary writer. “I’ve worked with South African artists for a long time, so I am very aware of embracing anything and everything about the struggle in South Africa.”
Although Williams says he’s exhausted going from one play to the next this year, he admits that he had to do this role once Jones and Brown were a part of it.
“I don’t tend to step back and look at my body of work, but I have a beautiful daughter, who’s nine, who reminds me of what it is I’m doing, and I think it’s a tremendous blessing as an actor to go from Kushner [The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide … at Theater J] to Wilson to Fugard within a six-month period and I didn’t realize how prolific that was,” he says. “To have those opportunities as an African American actor in this town is remarkable, so I am very humbled and grateful for the opportunity.”
Williams expects audiences at The Island to leave with a lot to think about and talk about regarding the state of oppression in their own world, and the world we live in today.
For Brown’s part, he hopes people recognize the dignity in all human beings.
“There are things in life that are far more important than the dollar,” he says. “The worthwhile pursuit in life is not caught up in the material things in being a responsible human being.”