“If the struggle needs weapons, give it words.”
It was chilly outside for a Friday night in mid-April, but the temperature had little to do with my shivering. I had just observed a rehearsal for a production of Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! by a new local theater company, Art of Africa.
The power of that play had infected me. I got to my car, flopped into my seat, and leaned my head against the steering wheel. One shaky breath after another, the ache in my chest grew steadily worse as the power of the play washed over me. My throat tightened and my eyes burned. I don’t tend to cry at plays, but there I was in my car, post-rehearsal, weeping tears of pain, hope, and love.
As I sat there, director Murray McGibbon’s words came back to me: “An evening at the theater can give you experiences of a lifetime in two hours. When you are reminded of the fact that theater is a very, very powerful societal tool, well, I get quite heady about it. It’s a giddiness. It’s so powerful.”
I agreed with him, of course; it’s why I snatched the opportunity to write about this play. But even I was surprised by the power it had on me. I was so entranced that I had to physically remind myself I was there for work.
I attribute the entrancing effect of the play to Athol Fugard’s deft use of his craft. Fugard is arguably the best-known and most-produced South African playwright in the United States. Like many of his pieces, My Children! My Africa! explores and opposes the racial inequality under apartheid rule of South Africa by showing, as McGibbon says, “how racial hatred breeds misunderstanding and ruins lives” through focusing on the lived reality of three individuals: Mr. M., a black, middle-aged teacher; Thami, Mr. M.’s prized student; and Isabel, a student from a nearby all-white girls’ school.
The three meet when Mr. M. (played by Ansley Valentine) invites a group of girls to his classroom for a debate competition. Thami (played by Yusef Agunbiade) and Isabel (played by Tara Chiusano) have a spirited debate that inspires Mr. M. to ask Isabel to be Thami’s partner in a scholastic competition. Not only does Mr. M. see this partnership as a way to get Thami a scholarship, but he also hopes that their multiracial team will challenge the racial prejudice of apartheid — the success of these two brilliant young pupils would prove to the world, and to himself, that the atrocities of the world can be changed through education and understanding, not violence.
Despite Mr. M.’s attempts, the plan gets derailed by Thami’s understandable disillusionment with a system that works to reinforce racial prejudice. Thami, who used to find hope and solace in the classroom, now sees it as just another form of oppression. His anger grows until he pulls out of the competition and boycotts the school. The play’s tragic end, according to McGibbon, shows “the real pain of racial prejudice.”
With a cast of only three characters and a minimal set, My Children! My Africa! may be “a small play but it’s a big canvas [Fugard] is painting on,” says McGibbon. Being born and raised in South Africa, McGibbon understands the lived reality behind Fugard’s play. This perspective also allows him to see the unsettling parallels that make this play so relevant to the present-day United States. As McGibbon says, Fugard’s work “transcends its locale, so even though it was written in 1989 and performed in South Africa … it is not limited to apartheid or to the South African situation. … It knows no social or community divide. It’s all around us.”
The complete investment of the cast and crew also contributes to the play’s magic. Their belief in the power of this play and of their organization is apparent in the absolute dedication they have shown over the past weeks. McGibbon; actors Valentine, Agunbiade, and Chiusano; and crew, including Caleb Curtis (stage manager), Brennan Edwards (lighting designer), David Sheehan (sound designer), and Phillip Male (set designer), have given up their money, free time, personal relationships, and precious sleep to make this play come to life. This production launches the beginning of a new production company, Art of Africa, created by McGibbon and the cast. The company is dedicated to bringing many forms of African art to Bloomington.
The production allowed me to experience another lifetime in a little under two hours. And, as McGibbon had suggested, the experience was heady. It made me feel giddy, empowered, and transformed, but, even more so, the play made me feel such joy. A joy that can only stem from being moved by a beautiful example of a beloved art form.
Art of Africa’s production will be performed in the Firebay Theater at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center April 27–30. More information about the show and Art of Africa is available on its website. Tickets can be purchased from Brown Paper Tickets.
[Editor’s note: For more, listen to WFHB’s show Interchange, hosted by Douglas Storm, who speaks with director Murray McGibbon and two of the play’s three actors, along with Michelle Moyd, assistant professor of history at Indiana University.]