Missoula gets its share of contemporary plays. True West runs next week at the University, for example, and MCT’s season starts with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but rare is the play that handles subjects from cultures other than our own. Last winter’s Blood Brothers, from England, is about as far afield as our stage life roams, and even that admirable production felt grounded in a comfortable familiarity.
Greg Johnson directs My Children My Africa as the first selection in the Montana Rep’s educational outreach lineup. Athol Fugard’s play grapples with themes of honor and allegiance, history and preservation, set in a small South African black township known as The Location. The play opens Thursday, Sept. 18, for three performances in the Masquer Theater before the entire production folds itself into a single van to tour the state for performances in high school gyms, middle school cafeterias and local libraries.
This is a bold choice for students, one that should be applauded. Not only is this likely to be an introduction to Fugard for most audiences, but the themes of cultural suspicion and hatred need illumination and expression even more than usual just now in our own country. While the U.S. has never openly faced the blatant divisions of race and class outlined in My Children My Africa, the country must now cope (again) with xenophobia and how to manage it.
This is also a difficult play to stage, and harder still to present to young students. Fugard’s drama lies principally in the minds of his characters, words dancing across the stage rather than bodies. My Children My Africa has only three characters: Mr. M., a middle-aged teacher in the dismal Location school, his star pupil, 18-year-old Thami, and another high schooler, Isabel Dyson, a white girl invited to the township with her debate team. As the play opens, Thami and Isabel face each other in ferocious argument, their cacophony obscuring their meanings, their anger spilling out beyond the proscribed bounds of the debate. Mr. M. settles them with his charming, aggressive teaching style. He’s one of those teachers every student longs for without knowing it—dynamic, vivid and immensely generous. His classroom is stimulating, and safe.
Debate is the most important metaphor of the play, and these first moments are key: ravenous discussion, fierce alignments, pig-headed focus. How young these students are compared to their sadly wise teacher. Demone Gore plays Thami, at first happily hot-headed, then growing increasingly sullen, sadness creeping into him throughout the performance. Gore holds onto this sadness, which is essential to season the anger Thami uses to define himself. Becky Wilson is the outspoken, self-assured Isabel, whose visit to The Location changes her perspective from that of a complacent white girl to a woman electrified by a new knowledge of the plight of others. Robert Cornelius artfully portrays Mr. M. as the good teacher and the noble pedant. He brings just a touch of vanity to the selfless teacher, an authentic note of startling clarity.
Plays about racism necessarily involve individuals grappling with its consequences in the most personal ways, and My Children is no exception. The divisions that separate white from black in South Africa are personalized here so that we can understand them in terms of a friendship, a daily life. Isabel’s rage and frustration about Thami’s political agenda seem a little too easy, although Wilson handles them nicely, with all the self-inflation a teenager could ask for. The characters take time out from the action to speak alone to the audience, lit by a dim spot that floods them with melancholy. Each gives us his or her perspective. What students will like as they watch is the articulate way in which the play outlines basic feelings and thoughts.
That opening debate resolves nothing, really, and the play illustrates this open, unanswered, intractable dilemma, the dilemma of what it means to fight for something that goes nowhere. Each of the characters fight, Thami most dramatically as he becomes part of a mob of “unrest” late in the play.
Johnson—who is surely the busiest director in Missoula—must work on a small stage with limited design, and he keeps the ideas vibrant. He seems at a loss, though, as to how to move the actors. Their words are big and urgent, but their bodies sit, stand, move from one bench to the other bench, back to the first bench, none of it with much motivation. Isabel’s physical relation to both student and teacher might be considered a sign of her precocity, or of the way whites think of blacks, or might speak of an underlying sexual tension, but none of it is clear enough to betray intention on either the actor’s part or the director’s.
But where it counts—in the emotional heart of the audience—Johnson, Cornelius, Gore and Wilson score perfectly. It is a challenge and a hurdle to move the mood from ignorant fun in the opening moments to real tragedy by the close. Even if the play follows this trajectory, there’s no guarantee a production will do it, too. But this one does. By the last few scenes, a true pall falls over these lives, bearing out Mr. M.’s earlier warning: “Hope. Don’t be fooled by its gentle name. It is as dangerous as hate and despair if they ever break free.”