Prophetic Words Revisited
My Children! My Africa! may not be South African playwright Athol Fugard's strongest and most complex work -- it's single-themed, talky and repetitive -- but it fully communicates his largeness of spirit and his humanistic approach to the anti-apartheid cause. Beautifully performed by the Shadow Theatre Company, the play packs an intense emotional wallop.
A middle-class young white girl, Isabel Dyson, has arrived at a school in a poor black township for a debate. She's challenging eighteen-year-old Thami Mbikwana, the local debate champion. The topic is a woman's place in society. Watched over by the wise schoolmaster, Mr. M, the youngsters generate a strong and joyful energy, pounding away at each other's debate points but ultimately acknowledging each other's intelligence and integrity. Delighted by what he's seen, Mr. M arranges for the two to enter a more prestigious contest. If they win, there will be money for his school and a possible university scholarship for Thami.
Teacher and students form an intense bond. For Isabel, the visits to the township represent a unique learning experience. They make her realize how little she knows, how privileged her life has been, and the depths of her previous condescension toward black people, including Auntie, the family maid. Prepared to avoid using long words for fear of stumping her audience, she finds herself intellectually challenged by Thami. And standing on stage beside him, she feels exposed and shy. "I realized they had no intention of being grateful to me," she comments. The result is a profound thirst for understanding. "I want more," she exclaims. "I want as much as I can get."
Isabel and Thami study together, exploring the work of European writers, reciting stirring passages from Masefield, Shelley and Byron in unison. Director Hugo Jon Sayles has staged a series of playful tableaux to sum up their growing (though entirely platonic) closeness and their pleasure in mastering their subject matter,
But this is Africa in 1985, and oppressive systems tend to destroy the most innocent of interactions. From the beginning, there has been strain between Mr. M and Thami, as the younger man responds to his peers' angry cries for freedom and the older insists on patience, learning and a respect for tradition. Soon black radicals are accusing Mr. M of capitulating to apartheid and calling for a boycott of his school. Isabel struggles to understand as her friendship with Thami disintegrates and the possibility of friendly debate erodes. "The comrades don't want any mixing with the whites," Thami tells her. Ultimately, Mr. M is martyred for his dogged insistence that words and knowledge are the only fitting weapons for the struggle.
It's not a complex message, and there's something almost Dickensian in the luxurious way Fugard states and underlines his premises, his characters' capacious freedom to explore their thoughts and emotions. There's nothing elliptical here, nothing that's implied or come at sideways. We understand that Mr. M's passion for his country, whether expressed in the words of English poets or in descriptions of scenes from his own life, is no less powerful than Thami Mbikwana's: Both men are willing to fight and die for their beliefs.
As written, Isabel is the most eccentric and highly individuated of the three characters. She's stubborn, talkative, smart, sensitive and completely fearless. With her rumpled hair and sharp, expressive little face, Jennifer Anne Forsyth brings Isabel to vibrant life. Quatis Tarkington combines gentleness and strength as Thami. Dwayne Carrington is a very talented actor who gives full expression to all the facets of Mr. M's personality: his dignity, blindness, love for his students and inner torment. But I do wish he would moderate his performance a little. Audiences tend to be more moved by an actor who's struggling to control his feelings (as people do in life) than by one who entirely expresses them. There were moments, too, when all the actors seemed a bit rushed.
Nonetheless, this is a production that should be seen, a testament to the strength of the human spirit. And it exemplifies the importance of the Shadow Theatre Company's contribution to Denver.
My Children! My Africa! was written in 1989 and first performed in London in 1990. In that same year, another Mr. M. was released from a South African prison: Nelson Mandela, whose unyielding belief in dialogue helped avert a bloodbath and paved the way for democratic elections in 1994. Following these, the country instituted a Peace and Justice Commission to redress the crimes of apartheid. It became a model for the world.
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