Music, Arts & Culture » Theater

Hard Truths

'Africa,' 'Doubt' explore the power of words to liberate and condemn

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01.28.09


Thami: "Yours were lessons in whispering. There are men now who are teaching us to shout. Those little tricks and jokes of yours in the classroom liberated nothing. The struggle doesn't need the big English words you taught me how to spell."

Mr. M: "Be careful, Thami. Be careful. Don't scorn words. They are sacred. Magical. Without words, a man can't think."

Few writers living today command the same volume of respect and admiration—bordering on worship and awe—as has been earned over the last several decades by South African playwright Athol Fugard. Born in 1932 to white parents, Fugard grew up in a country still operating under the segregationist laws of apartheid, which gave all the privileges and power to the minority white population. From his earliest efforts as a playwright, working with a mixed-raced theater company he founded in the late 1950s in Johannesburg, Fugard's plays have stood as eloquent challenges to his country's racist system of government, telling the story of black South Africans' struggle for freedom and equality in their own country.

Eventually marked as an enemy of the state, and constantly under the watch of South Africa's secret police, Fugard continued to write scathing works that soon drew the attention of the outside world. Though many of these plays had to be published and performed outside of South Africa, their impact was still strongly felt in Fugard's homeland, where, until apartheid finally ended in 1994, a white man writing about the country's many injustices against black people was seen as a kind of high treason.

As a result, Fugard's body of work has achieved an unprecedented reputation in the world, with the author's plays now viewed, and rightly so, as radical acts of brave individual heroism and personal honor as much as they are also dramatic entertainments meant to be staged in a theater. It's difficult at times to separate Fugard's reputation as a national hero from his job as a producer of words on a page, and as a result, even his lesser plays are often approached as a pilgrim might draw near to a sacred shrine.

The truth, of course, is that not all Athol Fugard plays were created equal. Though Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, The Blood Knot and "Master Harold" and the Boys are among the greatest political plays ever written, some of Fugard's works, including 1989's My Children! My Africa! , currently staged at the Marin Theatre Company in an elegant new production by director Josh Costello, are clearly among those "lesser plays."

Rambling, preachy and overlong, with a near total avoidance of visual action as its three characters debate, sermonize and discuss their way through the violent real-life student boycotts of 1985, My Children! My Africa! is nevertheless impossible to dismiss. As emphasized in MTC's powerful production, its very wordiness is part of its message—that words, in many cases, are better weapons than violent action.

On a simple, elegant classroom set (a thing of stark beauty by Erik Sinkkonen) depicting a poor black school in Candaboo, South Africa, the dedicated black high school teacher Mr. M (a wholly riveting L. Peter Callender) has staged a debate between his black students and those representing a white girls' school from outside the "location." Recognizing a rare opportunity to give his students a lesson in the unifying civility of spirited conversation, Mr. M asks one of the visiting girls, Isabel (Laura Morache, a sensation three years ago as Anne Frank at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), to team up with his prize student, Thami (an excellent Lloyd Roberson II), and act as debate partners in an upcoming festival.

The timing is unfortunate, however, as the growing friendship between Isabel and Thami is soon shaken by the growing unrest over the country's discriminatory system of education, and rumors of an impending school boycott, with the threatened possibilities of burned schools, pit the increasingly militant Thami against Isabel and Mr. M. Under Costello's tightly focused direction, the cast give their own lesson in the power of performance to transform pages of gorgeous text into vibrant, living, thinking flesh and blood.

The play leaves many questions hanging over the stage like smoke after a blaze. Chiefly, since the school boycotts are now seen as a pivotal event in the undoing of apartheid, does Mr. M's noble defense of education actually place him on the wrong side of history, and does it also turn Thami's insurrectionist comrades, with their torches and clubs, into the real agents of change? It's an uncomfortable debate, to be sure, but a debate well worth having, and surely that's the point of this unwieldy, imperfect but sharply intelligent play.

John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer-winning Doubt: A Parable is another play about the power of words and ideas to transform and condemn, but in its script's structure and tone, Doubt—newly opened at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in a production by the Pacific Alliance Stage Company—is quite the opposite of My Children! My Africa! Written as a series of escalating scenes arranged over the course of a few weeks, the play, set in 1964, in a Catholic church and school in the Bronx, is a tense, ambiguous mystery.

The parish's likable new priest Father Flynn (a superb Michael Wiles), is not liked by the school's hard-as-nails principal, Sister Aloysius (Carmalita Shreve, a little too monotone and repetitive until her impressive final scenes). When the young, naive Sister James (a lively Shannon Veon Kase) reports a possible indiscretion between Father Flynn and the school's only African-American student, Sister Aloysius is confident that her priest is a pedophile, despite the absence of any real evidence and Sister James' eventual retraction. Even the boy's mother, Mrs. Muller (first-time actress Marilyn Waters, impressively confident but still too underexperienced for a role this complex and pivotal) wants Sister Aloysius to drop her crusade against Father Flynn.

 

The play, with that word "parable" slipped purposefully into the title, is clearly about more than child abuse; Shanley illuminates the frail, dangerous differences between certainty and truth. In the PASCO production, directed by Hector Correa with an emphasis on keeping the mystery a mystery, the unevenness of the acting hurts the overall power of the play but can't obscure the fact that Doubt is an important and vital new American masterpiece.

  'My Children! My Africa!' runs Tuesday&–Sunday through Feb. 15. Tuesday and Thursday&–Saturday at 8pm; Wednesday at 7:30pm; Sunday at 7pm. Matinees Thursday at 1pm, Saturday&–Sunday at 2pm. Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. $20&–$51. 415.388.5208.

'Doubt: A Parable' plays Thursday&–Sunday through Feb. 8. Thursday at 7:30pm; Saturday&–Sunday at 8pm; also Sunday at 2:30pm. Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park. $17&–$24. 707.588.3400.







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