Hope has shown its audacity again in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!, currently in performances at the Signature Theater. Fugard’s 1989 tale of teenage friendship during the beginning of an apartheid by the South African playwright is a story of friendship and hope as well as political unrest and despair that is simultaneously disheartening and inspiring.
Framing the story through the relationship between a privileged white girl and a black boy and the teacher who recognizes their incredible intellectual and emotional gifts, this production, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, parallels emotional turbulence with political unrest in a deeply moving way.
We first meet Isabel Dyson (played with confidence by Allie Gallerani) and Thami Mbikwana (Stephen Tyrone Williams) when they are in the midst of a heated debate about whether academic curriculums for boys and girls should differ because of perceived differences between the sexes. Thami presents an assured argument for the preservation of tradition while Isabel gives a passionate speech in support of progress. The two students chat after the vote is taken (Isabel wins) and their respective intellects and talents are quickly apparent. Isabel is soon approached by Thami’s teacher, Mr. M, (James A. Williams, in a deeply moving performance) to join forces with Thami in a literary competition. Isabel, whose eyes were opened and curiosity was inspired by seeing Thami’s less-than-privileged community in a small Eastern Cape Karoo town, is only too eager to comply.
Isable and Thami quickly bond, as do Isabel and Mr. M, but all is not well in the classroom or outside of it. While Isabel’s future is clearly laid out and looks quite bright, Thami refuses to discuss what he will do after graduation. In several lengthy, impassioned monologues, he, Mr. M, and Isabel share their observations on the burgeoning political unrest in their towns. The racial tension within the community is escalating, as is determination to instigate change. And while Mr. M reveres tradition, Thami, who was once a star pupil and the pride and joy of his teachers, is looking to a future that is less than academic. When Thami dedicates himself to boycotting classes at school until black and white students are given an equal education and Mr M strongly opposes his decision, the differing ideals from the two generations come to a painful head.
Fugard’s script is verbose at times, especially during these monologues, but thanks to the excellent cast and Santiago-Hudson’s crisp direction, My Children! My Africa! avoids becoming tiresome or preachy and instead emphasizes the personal connections behind the political lessons. Williams gives Mr. M a heartfelt sincerity that is completely believable. His passionate belief in the power of words and the importance of education is admirable, and his questionable decisions at the conclusion of the show are even understandable. Gallerani infuses the role of Isabel with a balanced combination of maturity and innocence, and as the character’s idealistic view of the world is violently adjusted, Gallerani authentically portrays her resulting confusion and fear. As Thami, Williams gives a stellar performance of intensity and sincerity. His quiet determination, and his building rage, are both endearing and admirable, as people determined to “make a difference” are often viewed.
Staged on Neil Patel’s set of barbed wire and corrugated-metal and lit by Marcus Doshi, the sincerity of My Children! My Africa! is further enhanced by the original music of Bobby McFerrin. This sincerity is especially resonant during the election season in America, when many citizens, weary of tradition and longing for change, might see a bit of themselves in Thami.