Review: THE ISLAND at Ensemble

Stirring, historically important, must-see THE ISLAND iOS being staged by Ensemble Theatre

By: Oct. 30, 2023
Review: THE ISLAND at Ensemble

Native South Euclid resident and Brush High School grad, Dr. Alan Wieder, is on a quest “to stem the tide of forgetfulness.”  The oral historian, who has been on the faculties of both South Africa’s University of Western Cape and Stellenbosch University, is concerned that “few young South Africans know of the contributions or the sensibilities regarding the social justice and the revolution against class disparity and racism in the world.” 

Wieder, has been working since 1999 with South Africans who fought the apartheid regime. His Apartheid based books include Voices from Cape Town Classrooms, Teacher and Comrade, and Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid.

Wieder would be pleased that Ensemble Theatre is staging Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s THE ISLAND, a play which places the spotlight on the treatment of prisoners whose crime was to oppose Apartheid.

Apartheid, which means "distantiation” in the Afrikaans language, was a racist political and social system which took place in South Africa from 1948 to 1994.  It was racial segregation, under the all-white government, which dictated that non-white South Africans (a majority of the population) were required to live in separate areas from whites, use separate public facilities, while contact between the two groups was basically forbidden.

The apartheid system was abolished when a new constitution was ratified abolishing the previous system of government.  Nelson Mandela was elected to the Presidency of South Africa when multi-racial elections were held in April 1994, thus becoming the first black person to hold the position in that country.

THE ISLAND, is basically a true story.  It is set in the notorious Robben Island prison, where Nelson Mandela was held for twenty-seven years. 

The script centers on John and Winston. 

John was imprisoned for belonging to a banned organization, while Winston, was incarcerated for burning his passbook in front of the police. This was a serious crime, as the passbook was used to identify, segregate and control the South African minority.

As black political prisoners, the duo spends their days at hard labor and their evenings rehearsing Sophocles' ANTIGONE, which will be presented before their fellow prisoners and their captures.

In their enactment of ANTIGONE, Winston takes the part of Antigone, who defies the laws of the state by burying her brother, while John portrays her uncle Creon, who sentences her to die for her crime of conscience, thus drawing a parallel between Antigone's situation and that of the black political prisoners.

The play has four scenes. It opens with a lengthy mimed sequence in which John and Winston, two cell mates imprisoned on Robben Island, shovel sand in the scorching heat, dumping the sand at the feet of the other man, so that the pile of the sand never diminishes. This is designed to exhaust the body and the morale of the prisoners.

After yet another day of hard labor they tend each other's wounds, share memories of times at the beach and rehearse.

During one of the rehearsals, John is called to the governor's office. He returns with news that his appeal was successful and his ten-year sentence has been commuted to three years: he will be free in three months.  Winston’s reaction, though he is pleased for his cell-mate, has overtones of jealousy.

The final scene is their performance of ANTIGONE. “After Creon sentences Antigone to be walled up in a cave for having defied him and done her duty towards her dead brother, Winston pulls off Antigone's wig and yells ‘Gods of Our Fathers! My Land! My Home! Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honored those things to which honor belongs.’ The final image is of John and Winston, chained together once more, running hard as the siren wails.”

The themes of racial segregation, obedience and civil disobedience, brotherhood, freedom, memory, imagination, the transformative power of performance, the role of the individual versus the state, and mental versus physical liberation, run throughout the well-written and conceived script.

Although the play is in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa words are also spoken.  The well-planned program includes a glossary of those terms, as well as clarifying messages from the director and a historical perspective.

The Ensemble production, under the focused direction of Sarah May, is transfixing.  She not only displays a clear understanding of the intent and purpose of the authors, and is well-versed in staging a script and working with actors, but is invested in the purpose of the play. 

The two-person cast is outstanding.  Both Nnamdi Okpala (Winston) and Robert Williams (John) totally inhabit their characters.  They don’t act the roles, they assume the personhoods of each of the men.  Their severe but meaningless labor, their physical and mental torture, and their friendship are totally clear.  This performance at its finest!

Capsule judgment:  THE ISLAND helps to keep the history and human torture of apartheid alive, and like plays, books and films about the Holocaust, keeps the vision, thoughts and memories of those horrible times alive, so that they are never repeated again.  This is an absolutely must-see production!

THE ISLAND runs October 27th- November 12th, 2023 Ensemble’s new location at Notre Dame College (4545 College Rd., South Euclid).  Free, monitored parking is available.   For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go on-line to Click Here.

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