Would you go to prison for a play, to defend what that play said about the world? What would that play look like? You can see for yourself at MetroStage in Alexandria, with Athol Fugard’s The Island, a part of the explosive canon of theater protesting South African apartheid in the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, and ‘80’s.
The Island tells the story of John and Winston, imprisoned for their political beliefs on an unnamed island (that is obviously South Africa’s infamous Robben Island) and sentenced to hard, punishing labor. Based on the true story of Norman Ntshinga, the two men stage Antigone, a classical Greek play, as a form of protest against the cruel treatment they receive at the hands of their guard, Hadoshe.
When you go to see this play (and seeing it is a moral necessity), you might not at first accept that the treatment of these men is grounded in fact. Hadoshe forces them into Sisyphean labor: emptying the sea into a hole, hand-carving stone into perfect blocks, or (as we see them in the opening sequence) filling wheelbarrows up with dirt only to purposelessly empty and refill them again. These seem like horrifying products of the playwright’s particularly sadistic imagination, meant to exemplify or hyperbolize the plight of these men to make a point.
But they aren’t. They’re real, actual tortures devised by the guards on Robben Island to break men like Norman Ntshinga, Nelson Mandela, John and Winston.
And here is the aspect of this particular MetroStage production of The Island that is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing: Michael Anthony Williams (playing serious-minded director/actor John) and Doug Brown (playing the affable but despairing Winston) imbue these characters with raw vulnerability, drawing the audience into the story of their suffering to create a shared journey of pain and protest. Unlike the ancient Greek legendary character of Sisyphus, their punishment is not merely a philosophical consideration, but a question of whether the boulders they push up the hill will crush their bodies and souls on the rolling descent.
[Side note: Little did I know when I saw The Island last Sunday night that some of this anguish from these brave actors was the result of injuries sustained at the Sunday matinee performance. I believed at the time that the bandage on Michael Anthony Williams’ knee was a cosmetic choice, executed with a subtle limp, and that Doug Brown’s shoes were a prison “privilege,” accentuated by agony in his face with every tortuous step. That these actors suffered injuries, to Mr. William’s knee and a laceration to Mr. Brown’s foot, and soldiered on through their pain to excellent performances is a testament to their commitment to this play. They have honored the suffering of South African political prisoners with their strength.]
Each man reacts to the pressures differently, and director Thomas W. Jones II smartly emphasizes these differences. Michael Anthony Williams’ John is a firecracker, rigid in physicality and stoic in his response to the abuse. Mr. Williams is a taut bow throughout the production, knowing to bend to his torture but resisting it the entire way. I have met John Kani, who originated the role in the Tony-Award-winning worldwide tour of this production, and the highest praise I can give Mr. Williams is that he has embodied the spirit of Mr. Kani (one of the greatest actors of the 20th century, if truth be told) to microscopic and intense detail.
Doug Brown’s Winston takes the opposite tack, bullishly pushing against Hadoshe’s cruelty, then joking at the extra punishments that result from his type of resistance. He’s a jokester that hates being laughed at (which is problematic for someone who is going to play the female lead in Antigone), and Mr. Brown smartly delves into the African vaudeville stylings that formed the foundation of the work devised by John Kani, Winston Ntshona, and Athol Fugard, including this play. They contrast nicely with the end of Winston’s journey. No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that Mr. Brown leaves everything on that stage, including the hearts of the audience.
The vaudeville elements add much needed humor and ensure that the characters are humanized by something other than their suffering, but be aware that the language of the play will probably engender a reaction similar to Shakespearean language: it will take a few minutes of listening to the actors speak in dialect before you can catch up to what they’re saying. Some of the language necessitates a visit to the playbill, since it incorporates South African slang, so be sure to read the program while you wait for the show to start. Even so, if you aren’t used to lightning fast patter, this show may leave you somewhat in the dust.
The production design drew me in. Betsy Muller’s set does what MetroStage does best: austere simplicity, taking advantage of the intimacy of the space to communicate the claustrophobia of the prison. The stage is subtly textured to indicate the boundaries of the cell with two low wooden boxes that John and Winston sleep on. The only other set piece is a powerful Brechtian light, set center stage and pointing toward the audience. Changes in time, space, and situation are done through Alex Keen’s lights, whose delicate touch always maintains clarity of time and situation. Mr. Keen gets a heap of help from Sound Designer Aaron Fensterheim, whose occasional touches filled out the world of the play without ever becoming obtrusive.
The final piece of praise must go to producer and Producing Artistic Director of MetroStage, Carolyn Griffin. South African plays of the Apartheid era, exemplified by the work of Athol Fugard, are shockingly under-produced in the DC area. The Island is a great example of these plays, and Ms. Griffin’s boldness in choosing such a difficult play should be a lauded example for Artistic Directors around the DC theater scene.
March 27 – April 26
1201 North Royal Street
1 hour, 15 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $50 – $55
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets or call 703.548.9044
I can understand why some theaters shy away from these plays though. Now that apartheid has been broken, one might think that plays like The Island lack relevance or that audiences are alienated from the facts on the ground in South Africa during that time. The Island is a great example of this: the play takes on a deeper significance when you know that, after touring the world with this play, Winston Ntshona and John Kani voluntarily chose to bring the (then illegal) play back to South Africa, risking the very punishment the play depicts. That risk became a reality when the men were jailed for 23 days following performances of the play.
But the issues The Island addresses are still alive today, even if apartheid is not. They crop up in our news, where illegally detained prisoners face abuse under the guise of fighting terrorism and where the intentional racial separation of people lives on under the names “gentrification” or “white flight.” Theatermakers who want to address these issues should take a long look at plays like The Island, and audiences who feel the effects of racism in their communities should patronize these plays.
The Island honors the DC theater scene with its presence, pride, and professionalism. Do yourself and your community a favor by buying a ticket, bringing a friend, and having a long talk about the show and how it applies to our world afterward.
The Island by Athol Fugard . Directed by Thomas W. Jones II . Featuring Doug Brown and Michael Anthony Williams . Set design: Betsy Muller . Projections: Robbie Hayes . Costumes: Frank Labovitz . Lights: Alex Keen . Sound: Aaron Fensterheim . Production Stage Manager: David Elias . Produced by MetroStage . Reviewed by Alan Katz.