Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's reviews of The Magic Flute, Stanley Ann: The Unlikely Story of Barack Obama's Mother, Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, and Emilie/Eurydice
My Children! My Africa! has three characters whose personal loyalties are caught in the crossfire of change. Mr. M is a dedicated black teacher at a school in the "location," or black settlement. Thami is Mr. M's long hoped for protégé, a brilliant black male student from the "location," born with a thirst for knowledge, but as he enters adulthood he is questioning the value of pure learning when he and his people continue to be oppressed. Is it not time for action?
Isabel is an erudite white female student of middle-class upbringing, with the privileges afforded to her by apartheid, but hungry to experience life and make connections beyond the system's boundaries. When Mr. M invites her to form a team with Thami to compete in a national academic competition, she jumps at the chance. She is naïve as to the magnitude of the gulf between her world and Thami's, but sincere in believing it can be breached. In fact, the two young scholars find they have many common interests and a true friendship and admiration for one another begins to form.
The play depicts two approaches toward bringing about change. One is patient and genteel, assuming that given a chance, human nature will rise to high moral standards and justice will reign. It calls for finding common ground and making shared ideals the bedrock of progress. The other approach has no patience, is harsh and vocal, and assumes that those with privilege make choices based on preserving that privilege, displays of accommodations to those lacking privilege notwithstanding. It calls for forceful action fueled by frustration and built upon the aspirations of those who will no longer wait for their just share of their nation's wealth. As Thami, Isabel, and Mr. M find their place in the thicket of change, they find themselves on divergent paths, putting their personal loyalties to the test.
Isabel, the playwright's representative of the white world, is a very sympathetic character. She possesses a brilliant mind and the ability to form water-tight arguments. However, her experience has been limited. Her contact with black people has been limited to her family's maid and the delivery driver at her dad's pharmacyboth of whom she regards with respect, but as adjuncts to her world. She is amazed, when first coming into the "location" to take part in a debate Mr. M has organized, that within its confines, the inhabitants of the "location" are living their own lives that have nothing to do with the white world. To her credit, Isabel is energized by having her eyes opened. She is good hearted, fair minded, and not to blame for the system she was born into that landed her on the side of privilege.
Between them, Thami and Mr. M represent two perspectives of the black world, one that seeks change within the system, the other for whom change is an erupting force. My Children! My Africa! prompts consideration of whether these two perspectives can live with one another, questions that can be applied to a litany of conflicts beyond the apartheid question, continuing to this day. The play, set in a specific time and very particular circumstance, is tragically as relevant today.
James A. Williams and Jamil Jude co-directed this production, and have created an atmosphere that draws the audience into this world. They do not allow good or bad judgements to fall on any of the characters, and use every scene as a building block for the explosive climax. They also make good use of the Boss Theatre's thrust stage, taking advantage of the full space while keeping the action and the characters in view of the surrounding audience. Their work with Lucinda Holshue as dialect coach enables each actor to credibly speak for their community: the differing dialects used by Mr. M and Thami, and Isabel's Britishnot Afrikanervariation of a South African accent.
All three performers are spellbinding. Warren C. Bowles' portrait of Mr. M is awash in dignity and hope, though the weight of carrying hope on his shoulders decade after decade can be seen to take a toll. Cage Sebastian Pierre's Thami is sharp witted, good humored, and generous, a favorite of young and old, males and females. At the same time, the inner fires of discontent convincingly blaze when be winds of change begin to blow with gale force. Devon Cox wonderfully portrays articulate, self-possessed Isabel's realization of the privileges apartheid has afforded her, the pain it has inflicted on her friend Thami, and the shifting fault lines that are changing things for them all.
The centerpiece of Lance Brockman's set is Mr. M's classroom, with stark cinderblock walls and bare bones decoration. Katherine Horowitz's sound design brings in the crowdsthose applauding Thami and Isabel when they score in a debate, and those who are setting fires and throwing rocks to bring down the system of oppressions. Michael P. Kittel's lighting design underscores the moments of illumination and moments of encroaching darkness the characters face.
Park Square has delivered a powerful production of a play having its long-overdue Twin Cities premiere. I wish I could refer to it as a period piece, a window on our recent past. Unfortunately, events in the worldcontinued conflicts within and among nations, people forced to take sides under circumstances that leave everyone bereftmake My Children! My Africa! as timely as when it first appeared. It is terrific viewing as a work of theater, and essential viewing as commentary on our world.
My Children! My Africa! continues at Park Square Theatre's Andy Boss Thrust Stage through November 29, 2015. 20 West Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets: $40.00 60.00; Age 30 and younger, $21.00; Seniors, age 62+, $5.00 discount; ASL/AD patrons, ½ off for you and a guest; Military, $10.00 discount; Rush Tickets, $24.00, cash only, available one hour before performance subject to availability. A $2.00 facility fee is added to each ticket. For tickets call 651-291-7005 or go to parksquaretheatre.org.
Written by: Athol Fugard; Co-Directors: James A. Williams and Jamil Jude; Dialect Coach: Lucinda Holshue; Dramaturg: Gina Musto; Scenic Design: Lance Brockman; Costume Design: Trevor D. Bowen; Lighting Design: Michael P. KIttel; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Property Design: Connor McEvoy; Stage Manager: Megan Fae Dougherty.
Cast: Warren C. Bowles (Mr. M), Devon Cox (Isabel), Cage Sebastian Pierre (Thami)