Review: MY CHILDREN, MY AFRICA at Washington Stage Guild

Fugard sets the table, but the actors must serve the meal. In Washington Stage Guild’s good production, they do.

By: Nov. 15, 2021
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Review: MY CHILDREN, MY AFRICA at Washington Stage Guild
Jordan Brown as Thami Mbikwana in Washington Stage Guild's production of
My Children, My Africa!.
. Photo by DJ Corey Photography

It is, of course, mere coincidence that former South African State President F.W. de Clerk died only three days before Athol Fugard's My Children! My Africa! opened at Washington Stage Guild, but it sets a mood. de Clerk was the last President of apartheid-afflicted South Africa; he led the government's sometimes acrimonious negotiations with Nelson Mandela to bring democracy to that benighted country, for which they shared a Nobel Prize.

My Children! My Africa! is set in 1984, five years before de Clerk rose to power and squarely during the reign of his inglorious predecessor, P.W. Botha. Botha is mostly remembered today for his intransigent support of apartheid, but there were small acts of progress: a repeal of the ban on interracial marriages (18 years after the U.S.), a relaxation on the rules requiring segregated housing, and the like. Imagine an iceberg under a relentless Sun, beginning to show cracks: this was South Africa in the 1980s. But for the people frozen inside the iceberg, the melt was taking far too long.

The iceberg is melting a little bit in a classroom in Zolile High School, which sits in a desolate community of corrugated shacks called Camdeboo, commonly called "the Location." There, the educator Anela Myalatya, known to all as Mr. M (DeJeanette Horne) is facilitating a debate - on the equality of women - between his protégé, Thami Mbikwana (Jordan Brown) and Isabel Dyson (Libby Barnard), a visitor from an all-White school in a nearby all-White town. The debate is passionate but civil, and after the results are announced the antagonists shake hands. There! If Black and White people can meet as equals on the field of ideas, can a calm resolution of our difficulties be far behind?

The next step of Mr. M's plan to bring justice to South Africa is a literary competition, in which he has obtained the permission of Isabel's school and the competition itself to enter Isabel and Thami as teammates, despite that they go to different schools, live in different towns and belong to different races. He quickly secures Isabel's consent; Thami's he airily assumes.

And for a while all goes well. Isabel's parents even invite Mr. M and Thami for tea. If knowledge is power, then Mr. M is a subtle revolutionary. Living alone in a tiny back room, Mr. M dreams of filling the mind of some student with words (admittedly European) powerful enough to help him lead the nation to justice.

But Mr. M teaches a curriculum under the Bantu Education Act of 1953, in defense of which Minister of Native Affairs Hendrik Verwoerd said:

"There is no space for him [the 'Native'] in the European Community above certain forms of labor. For this reason it is of no avail for him to receive training which has its aim in the absorption of the European Community, where he cannot be absorbed. Until now he has been subjected to a school system which drew him away from his community and misled him by showing him the greener pastures of European Society where he is not allowed to graze."

Is it any wonder, then, that Thami - and a legion of other young Blacks - find Mr. M's gradualism intolerable? That they find his old-school assumptions - including the unquestioned authority of the teacher - inadequate? Knowing that they will "not [be] allowed to graze" among the "greener pastures of European Society" notwithstanding their education, is it shocking that they turn to more violent means to assure equality? Knowledge may be power, but, as Mao says, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

Fugard sets the table, but the actors must serve the meal. In Washington Stage Guild's good production, they do. Horne is perfect as a man playing the long game, all by himself. He is obsequious and ecstatic both. If ever a man's hopes and dreams - and those of a whole class of people - can be encapsulated in a reaction to an invitation to tea, the reaction of Horne's Mr. M does the trick. He is supplicant and mastermind both; think of the Friar in Romeo and Juliet, seeking to manipulate those he ostensibly serves. His cooing supplication of Isabel is in marked contrast to the command he normally radiates. He not only exudes authority, he depends on it; without his authority, he admits, he's nothing. Horne is superb in mixing these contradictions in a single authentic character.

Mr. M isn't the only character walking a tightrope. Isabel is a thoughtful young lady. Her visit to the Location has opened her eyes. Whereas before the only Blacks she knew were household servants, she has now seen a vibrant community of indigenous people. She wants to do better, and she wants her country to do better. And yet...and yet. She walks around the battered classroom (nicely designed by Tiffani Sydnor) as if she owns it, lounging on the teacher's desk and casually flipping through books. She talks to Mr. M as an equal and orders Thami around. Isabel comes to her self-realization slowly. "I was talking to him like he was ten years old," she says, recalling her conversation with Sammy, who makes deliveries for her pharmacist father. But this does not prevent her from interrupting Thami, who has asked her to hear something important, with a monologue on her own feelings. Isabel is a character whose flaws struggle with her good intentions, and in the end we're not certain which will win. Dyson wins kudos for making that struggle plausible and the uncertainty real.

Brown as Thami, like Barnard as Isabel, also goes through changes, but his are...different (I almost said darker, but that depends on what side of the fence you're on. If this was a story of an American colonist who becomes radicalized as the Revolution approaches, you might say it was like...Hamilton.) His respect, and love, for Mr. M are evident at the outset, but the rage bubbling beneath comes out early. He does not articulate the cause but we, sitting with nearly forty years' perspective, know it well. Brown cultivates this fury slowly, interrupting it with genuine pleasure in his intellectual contests with Isabel and excitement over the competition they've entered. But ultimately, it is overshadowed by his gathering rage. When it comes full force, it hits like an a-bomb. (In fact, it may remind you of the confrontation between Hally and Sam in Fugard's "MASTER HAROLD"...and the Boys," though that play was set thirty-four years earlier.) It is a hard thing to be young in a time of troubles. Fugard captures the dilemma perfectly, and Brown does it full justice.

The production, and these performances, evidence an astute understanding of the play, which is another way of saying that Director Gerrad Alex Taylor has done a first-rate job. From the clamorous opening to the lonely and mournful final note, we are at every moment in the play, and the characters are at every moment themselves. (Tola Lawal does noteworthy work as a dialect coach).

This is not to say that either the play or the production are flawless. Fugard does not always resist his temptation to the didactic in this nearly three-hour play, and some scenes - I am thinking particularly of the final scene, which is a sort of "what I learned" summation - do not add to the story. Almost all of the play takes place in Zolile High classroom #1, but not all of it does; it would be unrealistic to expect a whole new set for two scenes, but a different, more narrow lighting scheme might have been more effective.

But these are quibbles. My Children! My Africa! illuminates not only on a conflict thirty years and an ocean away, but on all such conflicts, including the one right now. And who was right, Thami or Mr. M? Could it be that the answer is...yes? Mandela and de Clerk had the negotiation Mr. M once dreamed his students would conduct, over the future of the country. But before then, there was The Fire This Time, led by Thami and his comrades.

Running Time: Two hours and 50 minutes with one intermission.

For tickets, click here.

My Children! My Africa! by Athol Fugard. Directed by Garrad Alex Taylor. Featuring DeJeanette Horne, Libby Barnard and Jordan Brown. Scenic design: Tiffani Snydor. Costumes: Cheryl Yancey. Lighting: Marianne Meadows. Sound design: Kaydin Hamby. Dialect coach: Tola Lawal. Stage Manager: Arthur S. Nordlie. Produced by Washington Stage Guild.



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