Monday, December 18, 2006

Review of Athol Fugard's "My Children, My Africa!" at Philadelphia Theatre Review

An interesting (overheard) anecdote proved the persistent relevance of Athol Fugard’s My Children, My Africa! Two rows in front of me, expressing nothing less than pure dread at the prospect, an audience member explained to her friend how Democratic Senator Tim Johnson had a stroke that day, and that (oh no!) the Republicans might regain power in the Senate. She spoke of this as if no political future could bode worse for her, even after she just sat through the first act of a play taking place amidst the violence and subjugation of apartheid South Africa. I wanted to laugh out loud, but remembered the first lines spoken by the idealist teacher Mr. M in Fugard’s play.

“I know it’s necessary to remind each of you exactly what a debate is.”

But Fugard’s characters fail to heed his advice, and a clash of ideas slowly and menacingly escalates into a tense battle of wills on The Wilma Theater stage. Mr. M (Glynn Turman) seeks to enact gradual, peaceful political change by entering his best student Thami (Yaegel Welch) in a pairs-based literature challenge with Isabel (Meghan Heimbecker), a top student from a neighboring whites-only school.

However, while Isabel sees opportunity and friendship in this attempt to raise consciousness, Thami slowly comes to realize this type of social reform will only ensure that even his grandchildren “will not know what freedom is.”

While the play is heavy handed, Blanka Zizka’s direction takes a different tact all together. She composes the first act softly, keeping the level of emotion consistent with the (oft) esoteric discourse. In Act II, she allows the play to fill with the anger and emotion of the characters, creating a contrast between the two halves. But Act I is too light, too cerebral in approach to the violence and turbulence of Act II, tarnishing the production’s unity.

Save Heimbecker’s even keel, the actors mirror this approach in a long, almost dreamy fuse through act one that allows them to burst outward with emotion in act two.

Welch exhibits a truly dynamic range in his performance, equaling the ebb and flow of his character’s torn spirit. However, he continually slouches, and as a result, is never convincing in any of the different positions or emotions he espouses.

A contrast mars Turman’s performance as well. In the first act, he’s full of hope and enthusiasm that too easily spirals downward after his betrayal. Here he’s too restrained, and as a result, his defiance becomes a defeat and then a death wish.

This choice, whether Zizka’s or Turman’s squares against the play’s ending of hope, diminishing the flash of brilliance in Matt Saunders’ set that represents the result of Mr. M’s lifetime commitment to the peaceful achievement of freedom.

However, not much can detract from a realization that fully enables the awesome power of Fugard’s play. And in this, the Wilma succeeds grandly, bringing to life the conflict between enlightening debate and political demagoguery, between constructive solutions and senselessness, and between the hope that results from the former of these, and the persistent ignorance and hatred spawned by the latter.

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