"Learning undigested by thought is labor lost. Thought unassisted by learning is perilous," reads the ever-timely Confucian message chalked onto the board of a dingy black township high school in South Africa, 1985, in Athold Fugard's searing 1989 polemic My Children! My Africa!. By play's end, when the fictional uprisings mirror the dramatic eruptions in Sharpeville and Soweto, Fugard -- the theater's most learned, thoughtful singer of apartheid's wrongs -- etches the crucial maxim indelibly into memory.
Based on a brief newspaper account of the death of a black teacher during racial unrest near Port Elizabeth, the play depicts the burgeoning friendship between a white schoolgirl and a black schoolboy brought together for academic contests by a paternalistic teacher. At first, despite their cultural differences, the teenagers get along well. Isabel Dyson, a prep-school standout who has never previously ventured into a township, is invited to debate Thami Mbikwana, prized pupil of jovial Mr. M. When Mr. M., thrilled that his precocious young scholars attend to the content of the words and not the color of the faces, proposes that they apply to be
a team he'll coach in a national literary competition, Isabel and Thami readily, enthusiastically agree.
But this meeting of the minds collapses violently when racial unrest and school boycotts force the comrades in scholastic arms to choose sides. Thami, impatient and disgusted with a country "that doesn't allow the majority of its people any dreams at all," takes up the cause of active protest. What good is it to learn, the young revolutionary asks, when education doesn't lead 25 million people to their rightful shares? Mr. M., "an old-fashioned traditionalist," pleads for reason. "If the struggle needs weapons," he urges, "give it words." Thami's instincts tell him to gather in the streets with rocks at the ready; Mr. M.'s to come to school and work within the system. Isabel, her privileged white world crashing down around her, is paralyzed, caught between the polarizing opposites her new friends represent. Ridden with the guilt and good intentions of white liberalism, she doesn't know what to think or feel anymore. Three points that will never become a triangle, these characters are inevitably divergent, even in the face of death.
The schoolroom debate that becomes life-and-death gives considerable dramatic and metaphoric tension to My Children! My Africa!, a worthy play, if not Fugard's most accomplished. It lacks the intimacy of "Master Harold" ... and the Boys, A Lesson from Aloes, The Road to Mecca and Blood Knot because it has characters who are completely static; from animated opening to knolling ending, they state and restate their stances, never changing or enhancing their positions, despite their erudition. Nor do they ever talk about anything other than political immediacies, so their relationships are never allowed to deepen or complicate -- or seem real. Perhaps because they can't fully interact, Fugard attempts to realize the characters through introspective soliloquies, a technique which becomes distractingly predictable, repeatedly pulling the audience outside the action.
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The Houston premiere of My Children! My Africa!, at Theater LaB, takes this good but troubled play and makes it better than the text itself. Director Alex Allen Morris (a member of the Alley and Ensemble companies) begins the evening with friendly, spirited competition, then tightens the strain gradually, choking off all the comfortable air until neither the characters nor the audience can breathe deeply in the shock of events. Though Fugard draws the battle lines by the end of the first act, Morris' firm grasp makes the social conflicts resonate deeply into the second.
The three poised performers are also superb (as are their accents, coached by Deborah Kinghorn). Adrian Cardell Porter explodes as Thami, whose polite, obedient exterior belies his pent-up rage. Rebecca Harris is utterly charming as Isabel, an engaged listener with an interested smile and direct delivery communicating a self-assurance that serves her well, until once-remote events cause her to lose her ideological bearings. Ray Anthony Walker finds energy and passion in the cheery Mr. M., an educator desperately wanting to feed young people with hope, even at the risk of alienating them.
At one point, Mr. M. confides another Confucian proverb: that he can do whatever his heart prompts without transgressing what is right. Even in their single-mindedness, all the characters possess this flawed nobility, for they act out of concern for their people. The cast and crew of Theater LaB give their people a night to remember.
My Children! My Africa! runs through April 23 at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, 868-7516.