My Children! My Africa!
Also see Susan's review of Merrily We Roll Along
South African playwright Athol Fugard is justly famous for his lyrical yet incisive views of his homeland, both during the apartheid regime and since its collapse. Fugard's 1989 drama My Children! My Africa!, receiving an impassioned production at Washington's Studio Theatre, views the many ramifications of this institutional injustice through the microcosm of three people: a black teacher, a black male student and a white female student.
The play takes place in 1984 in a small South African town. Isabel Dyson (Veronica del Cerro) has lived a privileged life, attending a private school, and never really thought about the black township "on the edge of my life," in her words, until she goes there to compete in a debate tournament. "Mr. M" (James Brown-Orleans), the beloved teacher who organized the tournament, has spent his life trying to undercut the laws that require that "Bantu" students receive an education far inferior to that of whites. He believes that Thami Mbikwana (Yaegel T. Welch), the best student in his class, will be the one to carry his work forward.
As Isabel and Thami become friends and, with Mr. M's support, work together to compete in an English literature contest, they begin to see beyond the external barriers keeping them apart. More troubling is the philosophical split between Mr. M, who has worked cautiously, not stirring up trouble, and Thami, who believes the time has come for decisive action. (Fugard wrote the play at a time before the end of apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison, but the struggle – both violent and peaceable, through uprisings as well as education – had been going on for decades.)
Director Serge Seiden delineates the issues and the personalities with great sensitivity, never allowing the roles of the characters as symbols to overshadow their humanity and individuality.
Brown-Orleans gives an overpowering, wrenching performance as a man who has spent his life clinging to "the power of the word," who fears that taking action will lead to barbarism and the destruction of the intellect. Welch and del Cerro keep their emotions nearer to the surface, but their range of expression is just as deep and sincere.
Debra Booth's designs emphasize what Thami and his classmates are fighting: the township school has walls of mud and concrete block, and the same wooden desks that probably have been there for generations.