We gave it a B+
Though it takes place in the midst of one of the ugliest, most frightening times in South African history — the people’s fight against apartheid — 1989’s My Children! My Africa! is perhaps Athol Fugard’s most beautiful play. It may also be his talkiest — and that’s saying something (no one could ever accuse the South African writer of brevity). But you’ll have little trouble staying tuned in to the passionate revival running through June 10 at Off Broadway’s Pershing Square Signature Center, the second Fugard presentation in Signature’s new season.
The classroom setting gives the playwright the perfect opportunity to proselytize, and the three characters — black student/budding revolutionary Thami (Stephen Tyrone Williams), his teacher, Mr. M (James A. Williams), and white student Isabel (Allie Gallerani) — spend a fair amount of time on their respective soapboxes. But they also engage in good-natured academic debates, build tentative teenage friendships, recite Wordsworth and Byron, and trade trivia about Tennyson’s rock carvings and Shelley’s ashes. One stirring Dead Poet’s Society-esque exchange results from Mr. M’s modest attempt to obliterate the color line by pairing up Thami and Isabel in a 19th-century poetry contest. As Mr. M says: ”If the struggle needs weapons, give it words, Thami.” Fugard has given this trio ammunition aplenty.
As the privileged 18-year-old Isabel, Gallerani finds a wonderful mix of sincerity and cluelessness (and, thankfully, likability); as her debate opponent and unlikely friend, Stephen Tyrone Williams conveys the requisite teenage recalcitrance and ignorance, though he has trouble tapping into Thami’s restlessness. Yet it’s Mr. M who’s the heart of My Children! My Africa!, and through whom Fugard speaks indirectly. James A. Williams is an eloquent messenger for the writer’s moral. ”Don’t scorn words. They are sacred! Magical!” he warns Thami. ”Do you know that without words a man cannot think?” A frightening thought indeed. B+
(Tickets: SignatureTheatre.org or 212-244-7529)