Athol Fugard’s MY CHILDREN! MY AFRICA, first staged in 1989, still packs a punch in revealing the impact of injustice on people at a personal level. The current staging at the Artscape Theatre Arena by Abrahamse and Meyer Productions, challenges its audience to never underestimate the delicate nature of humanity in an all too often cruel world.
Admittedly, I walked into the play wondering why I’m sitting through another Fugard play, as I am yearning to see new plays by talented young black voices who have similar and other stories of injustice burning to be told – their stories, told their way and not through someone’s observational perspective. Don’t get me wrong, I am not denying the importance of protest theatre dating from Fugard’s most pivotal contributing time, but if the same stories are performed too often through a similar voice and perspective, you run the risk of numbing your audience to the actual political impact of the message. But that view aside, the issues at the centre of MY CHILDREN! MY AFRICA! remain relevant as is evident from the fact that the play is also a prescribed work for Grade 12 First Additional Language this year. And perhaps this remains a teachable moment, not just for the learners but for the broader audience too, that one should never stop listening, even when you think you’ve heard it all.
MY CHILDREN! MY AFRICA! takes its audience to Middleburg in the Karoo (a quintessential Fugard setting) circa 1984, at the start of the revolutionary student uprisings (challenging the apartheid’s system’s suppression of the black youth through education), which resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency. At the cusp of that political turning point, we meet a dedicated black English teacher (Mr Anele Myalatya aka Mr M) and his protégé pupil (Thami Mbikwana) from the location as they develop a friendship with a privileged white student (Isabel Dyson) from the town through a shared love of debating and English literature. It is this friendship that serves as the catalyst for the exploration of the play’s themes of injustice, inequality, liberty, generational divide, education discrimination, friendship and a purposeful life.
Tackling these issues in a narrative-approach that remains people-focussed, and not just politically driven, requires a delicate balance. Fugard has over the years proven himself a master of such a balancing act, with individual humanity considerations taking centre stage, while examining the impact of socio-political realities on his characters.
Fugard takes great pains to establish his individual characters in his plays – a trait of the playwright that for me can go on a bit too long with numerous lengthy monologues, as is the case with his Act 1 in MY CHILDREN! MY AFRICA!.
With this staging again, the play was at the point of losing me by the end of Act 1, before the intensity ramped up in Act 2. Act 2 is where it truly grabbed my attention. Admittedly, the work done in Act 1 to establish characters as individuals and unpacking their unlikely relationships pay off in Act 2, particularly in the moment when Mr M’s character’s climatic moment is revealed, where he is forced to make a life-altering decision. I would lie if I denied my eyes fighting back tears at that very moment.
Ntlanhla Kutu’s performance as Mr M is impressive and moving, and in that moment he stole the show. Kutu succeeds beautifully in portraying his character’s love for Africa and the youth, while not shying away from the inner turmoil Mr M faces with his decision to try and fight the oppressive system from within. His words “If the struggle needs weapons, give it words” hang heavy with meaning once uttered, especially when weighed against the play's first words, his words: “Order please!”
As the youthful representatives in this play Lungile Lallie as Thami and Jenny Stead as Isabel face various external influences that tests the boundaries of friendship. Initially the rapport between the two actors feel a bit strained, but they soon settle into a comfortable performance stride through their lively debates.
Lallie is well cast, and he performs with great verve as he translates the tension, fears and passion of the oppressed youth at the time to the audience. He particularly impresses in his character’s turbulent interaction with Kutu’s Mr M: a relationship of extreme emotional ups and downs that taps into time transcending theme of the tension between frustrated youth and protectively cautious elders.
The casting of Stead as Isabel is a bit more puzzling for me. I think a gap of 10 years (taking into consider that one needs a certain level of skill and experience to portray complex characters) is an allowed disparity gap between performer and character. After that you start pushing the boundaries of relatability and believability with your audience. When the play was first staged, Fugard cast Kathy-Jo Ross as an actress fresh out of varsity –thus older and skilled, but appropriate. The casting of Stead (who is undeniably skilled and talented) to portray the young 18-year-old Isabel with a gap exceeding that 10-year difference impacts on the believability of the relationships unfolding in the play. The twirling of hair and other youthful mannerisms employed to communicate teenage enthusiasm are sadly not enough to convince me that Stead is the 18-year-old Isabel, though it can’t be denied that her performance is a committed one. This is most evident in Act 2 when the interaction between Thami and Isabel feels more like that of a confused mother confronted by the actions of a rebellious child, rather than an exchange between peers with different life experiences and perspectives.
If you implore your mind to look beyond this, the current staging of MY CHILDREN! MY AFRICA! ends up being a moving and spirited production that reminds its audience of the impact of contextual and external influences on people’s differing world views and interactions, as injustice comes in many shapes and forms… still today.
The direction and design by Marcel Meyer is sensitive and conceptually striking in this confrontational and ever-relevant morality play. The lighting design by Fahiem Bardien further adds to the aesthetic of the production. The music composed by Richard Campbell, though beautifully done, does not feel as if it speaks to the revolutionary and tense tone of the play, though this does not detract from the essence of the production.
The Abrahamse and Meyer Productions presented MY CHILDREN! MY AFRICA runs at the Artscape Arena until 3 June 2023, with tickets available online through Computicket.