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My Children! My Africa!
By Elyse Sommer
In a passionate monologue he explains that the future he envisions for his students and the signs of a changing Africa stir a host of emotions inside him. As he puts, it these little heart attacks make him sweat and "jump out at him like a wild beast." He expands on the metaphor with Fugardian lyricism: "I've got a whole zoo in there, a mad zoo of animals. . .one of those animals, the one called Hope, has broken loose and is looking for food."
Mr. Fugard's 1989 play, the Signature Center's second this season to pay tribute to the freedom championing playwright, is set in 1984. That means it's a backward look at the period of unrest and hope preceding the end of South Africa's Apartheid policy of racial separatism. Mr. M arranges a debate with the neighboring white school. We thus see the effect of this terrible policy and the burgeoning rebellion on two other characters, one black, one white.
Thami (Stephen Tyrone William), Mr. M's prize student who the teacher sees as the one most likely to confirm his belief that it's educated young black men who will make a new, free South Africa possible. Isabel (Allie Gallerani) is, like Thami, a smart eighteen-year-old from the nearby but oh so different white school. She's not only a fierce debater but eager to know more about ther world of this shabby school so near her own privileged neighborhood. It is seeing how the debate he dreamed up seeds a friendship between the debaters, that feeds the beast of hope breaking loose inside Mr. M, described in his passionate monologue.
Typical of Fugard, the drama is kept small and moves along at a decidedly slow pace. Like The Road to Mecca, revived earlier this year by the Roundabout, the first act is, in fact, something of an endurance test. It takes ninety minutes to establish the hopeful result of the debate and lay the groundwork for the outside forces pulling at Thami and threatening his teacher's hopes for him. Given Mr. M's fervent belief in the power of words (the fat dictionary that's always with him is his bible), it's apt to see and hear Isabel and Thami toss the names and words of great figures in literature about. But like the monologues (Thami and Isabel as well as Mister M get lengthy arias) and despite Fugard's lyricism, it's all too much of a good thing.
The second act moves into more dramatically forceful territory, making this one of Fugard's most overtly political plays. Without really leaving the classroom setting, the student strike that Thami feels compelled to join gives a tragic twist to the hopeful dedicated schoolmaster story.
The preachy speeches and too leisurely pace notwithstanding, Ruben Santiago-Hudson beautiful, subtly directed production and the impassioned performances manage to make this a moving look back at this turning point in South African history. James A. Williams embodies the teacher's unwavering commitment to the power of words. Stephen Tyrone Williams captures the conflict between the love of learning instilled at him by Mr. M and the youthful impatience for change through action he shares with the youths striking against the status quo. Allie Gallerani brings charm and intnsity to her role as the youthful representative of the liberal while midle class. Given that the venue in which she's making her Off-Broadway debut is named for Romulus Linney, she brings to mind a younger version of Linney's daughter Laura.
Aided by his creative team, the director has evoked the look, sound and feel of this impoverished school. Robert Kaplowitz's sound effects and Bobby McFerrin's specially composed incidental music support the lyricism of the words, with Marcus Doshi's lighting adding more atmospheric touches. Neil Patel's unit set is simple but wonderfully effective — just a few props for the schoolroom in which the play unfolds, with a backdrop of rusty, corrugated metal and jagged wire to symbolize the country's racial strife. A large green-leafed tree seems to be there, another symbol, contrasting the dark image of the South African black's world and the greener pastures of the white citizens.
The fine staging and acting make those exclamation points in the title apply to this revival of the admittedly flawed by too much and often preachy dialogue. I can't help wishing that the final play in the Signature's Fugard tribute (The Train Driver) had been selected to demonstrate the playwright's continued exploration of his country's problems, like his more recent but never seen in New York Coming Home . Still, perfect or imperfect, old or new, Fugard's plays with their penchant for long monologues are always worth seeing. Unlike Will Eno's latest monologue currently at the Signature's Griffin Theater which failed to engage me as it did Curtainup's reviewer ( The Review), Fugard always has smething to say and says it beautifully.
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