Off Broadway's Signature Theatre Company has just debuted a new production of "My Children My Africa!" a work penned by celebrated South African playwright Athol Fugard in 1989. NY1's Roma Torre filed this review.
If there was any doubt about Athol Fugard's mastery of the dramatic form, it must be banished with the immaculate, soul-stirring Signature Theatre production of his play "My Children! My Africa!" Granted, it starts very slow and verbose but with just three characters and a modest set, Fugard and company affectingly conjure up South Africa 1984 - wholly immersing us in a time and place shattered by apartheid and buoyed by hope.
It's deceptively small, this story that takes place entirely in a classroom where we're introduced to a pair of students - Thami Mbikwana and Isabel Dyson - both 18 years old and exceedingly bright....yet because of their skin color, worlds apart.
We meet them in a debate contest - an idea that was thought up by Thami's teacher known as Mr. M. - a man imbued with the power of words who regards teaching as a calling. To his great surprise, Thami his star pupil and Isabel who attends the white school become friends. And it is their friendship and love of learning that gives Mr. M the hope that the the nightmare of South Africa's racial divide can be overcome.
It is stunning the way Fugard mixes poetry into the sad prosaic culture of hate. Ruben Santiago-Hudson's sensitive direction is perfectly attuned to the language of this play - with the additional inspiration of Bobby McFerrin's music - adding up to a total experience in which we're able to both intellectualize and feel the clashing forces in play.
Most surprising though, the brilliant performances. James Williams, Allie Gallerani and Stephen Tyrone Williams embody their characters so convincingly, it seems impossible to believe they're not from Africa.
The play is long and punctuated by lengthy monologues...but a show that celebrates words with such virtuosity can surely be excused for having perhaps too many of them. It was, in the end, moving for me beyond words.