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My Children! My Africa!

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

James A. Williams, Allie Gallerani, and Stephen Tyrone Williams.
Photo by Joan Marcus

My Children! My Africa! may not be the tautest and tightest of Athol Fugard's plays about apartheid-crippled South Africa, but good luck discerning that from the new Signature Theatre revival. Well directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and lovingly acted by a committed three-member cast, this new mounting at the Signature Center's Romulus Linney Theatre plangently taps into the primal hunger for revolution that Fugard chronicled, even if it doesn't do much to elevate the work's heat.

That's not to say this play is chilly. Set in a classroom in a small town in Eastern Cape Karoo in 1984, it captures the temperature of a flash-point moment in South African history, when racial strife among its inhabitants was reaching critical mass. And its story, about a high school teacher, Anela Myalatya (better known as "Mr. M"), who tries to broker cooperation between the black Thami and the white Isabel Dyson by uniting them on a competitive literary quiz event, remains a sobering study of social drunkenness at just the moment real transformation may have first been in sight.

By way of his subtle yet intense staging, Santiago-Hudson highlights the two crucial conflicts that drive My Children! My Africa!. The first, of course, is between Thami and Isabel, who are first seen competing in a debate about whether a special educational curriculum should exist for women, and who later wield facts about certain English poets as if they were weapons perfectly primed for bifurcating the other. The second, and even more compelling, is between Thami and Mr. M, the passionate young firebrand hungry for change facing off against the mentor who's spent decades living inside, and most of the time even defending, the status quo.

The nature of these relationships, particularly in what exactly they are and how they influence or are influenced by the roiling world outside the campus, is the primary vehicle for Fugard's exploration. It's a powerful one that slices through differences in generation and gender, and leaves you wondering how far one can—or should—go in pursuit of goals on either end of the political spectrum. You see how each person impacts the other two, and the effects accumulate right until the climax, when the consequences of their decisions can no longer be avoided.

Allie Gallerani is excellent at conveying the anguish of the white girl trapped within her own privilege, and she beautifully charts Isabel's fascinating evolution from indifference to involvement. Stephen Tyrone Williams is forceful, if a bit more one-note, as Thami; he soars in the character's most emphatic lines and speeches, but doesn't keep you guessing quite as much as he could. James A. Williams is quiet but profound as Mr. M, showing you exactly the toll decades of impression have taken on this man's life—even if he's never as willing as he might to define the impact in words.

Factoring in a simple and attractive set (by Neil Patel), enveloping lights (by Marcus Doshi), and a spare but absorbing score (by Bobby McFerrin), the evening has almost everything going for it except a top-flight script. Unlike with his more vital works, such as "MASTER HAROLD"...and the boys, Blood Knot, and The Road to Mecca (the latter two of which have already returned to New York stages in 2012), this one doesn't fully recast its specific struggle in more universal terms. Although a few lines most notably in Thami's explosive speech at the end of Act I, distinctly echo general woes and unrest (and rang with relevance for present-day America), too often the show plays like a mob's rallying cry: something that knows it can get you involved, but with the assumption you don't first need to be convinced.

Much of the necessary material is there in the lengthy monologues the characters use to define themselves, and which are the play's more engaging pieces of psychological exploration. Unfortunately, much of the information provided therein is background that fails to consistently irrupt into the conflict surrounding it. You may get hints of what makes Isabel or Thami or Mr. M tick, but the personal implications are absent and sorely missed. This makes much of the action, particularly in the unconvincingly urgent second act, more didactic than dramatic.

But so much warmth and care have been lavished on this production that it almost doesn't matter. If Fugard's writing too seldom transports you into the thick of a burgeoning rebellion, Santiago-Hudson and his actors present the more intimate, human costs of the battles Thami, Isabel, and Mr. M are fighting with each other and themselves. So completely are the personalities they create, in fact, that the central figures of My Children! My Africa! become almost real enough for you to consider them children of your own.

My Children! My Africa!
Through June 10
Signature Theatre Company's Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between Dyer and 10th Avenues
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
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