BWW Review: Exploring Corruption in APT's THE ISLAND
I don't often stay for the post show discussion. Ordinarily, the show stands on its own and I am content with that. Every once in a while, however, a show stirs something within me that insists I stay to hear what the cast or the directors have to say. American Players Theatre's latest production of Athol Fugard's The Island is one such show.
Set in Apartheid South Africa, The Island explores the reality of two prisoners at Robben Island. Known best as the prison camp that housed Nelson Mandela, Robben Island was notorious for being demonstratively cruel to its prisoners. So much so that speaking of the atrocities that occurred there was illegal. The prisoners, Winston and John, are confined tightly in cell together and preparing to perform scenes from Sophocles' Antigone for the other prisoners.
The classic political protest play becomes a battle cry and a way to show that freedom can sometimes be ascertained through art.
Chiké Johnson (Winston), a newcomer to APT this season, is the yang to LaShawn Banks' (who plays John) yin. Johnson's thundering voice exudes deeply seeded frustration for the state of his character. When this anger has to be manifested in the calm role of Antigone, graciously given to him by his cellmate, Johnson's expressive eyes speak the loudest.
This subdued expression is something that Banks plays to for the run of the show. Though he is, at times, overtaken by his costar's intensity his role as John is never overshadowed. Banks' general calm makes his character just as strong as his companion, although it isn't quite as obvious at first. After all, Johnson is more daunting at first glance.
Banks and Johnson make an interesting dichotomy to the two, non-speaking guards played by Nick Ehlinger and Alistair Sewell. In any other circumstances, the prisoners could easily overcome their captors but that is easily a nod to how repressed the men truly were in their grotesque confines.
A cell composed of jagged edges and surrounded by meticulous lines of sand are the doings of scenic designer Yu Shibagaki. Simplistic designs allow for the power to be in the text, but also reminds the sold out house of how little the Apartheid state thought of its own countrymen.
Oppression by the state is precisely what first time APT director Derrick Sanders points to in his directorial notes. It is not a new concept and it did not die with the end of Apartheid in South Africa. It is alive and well in many parts of our world, which makes productions of The Island (as well as its homage to Antigone) unabashedly important.
Just as art acted as a means of freedom for Winston and John, it can close the gap for multitudes of people. Simply observing the audience members who stayed after the show to be a part of the conversation with the actors was proof of that. One woman recited a chant that John and Winston sing from memory while others wondered how cast members reacted to the hardships that their characters faced.
APT's glimpse into a time of struggle opens the door for conversation past our own concepts of subjugation. Oftentimes the most difficult subjects can be explained through performance and help us have a better understanding of one another.
In the midst of the discussion, Johnson, who plays Winston, said it best "theatre is the bridge that brings people together."