Lifeline Theatre

Caught in the Act is the collective title for a terrific double bill from Lifeline Theatre. It fits these one-acts like a skin. Both center on couples caught in the act of being themselves. In the first play, the crime is the sex act itself. In the second, it’s the act of acting. The real crime of those trapped, however, was trying to forget they were South Africans, a people for whom privacy is never free of politics. In a world of black and white they chose gray. The punishment fits the crime.

In Athol Fugard’s Statements Taken After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act we see two nude bodies dimly visible in the dark. Their voices and the growing moonlight slowly expose them. Frieda is a white Afrikaner, Philander a black man. Though the two just committed treason against the state, they perversely act just like people in love; you’d never guess Pretoria was imperiled by their one-year affair.

Before the state strips them of their hard-won humanity, Fugard fills it in. Philander is a wise lover; he sees Frieda’s fright and soothes her with the thought of the vast antiquity of the land they’re lying on; he finds special solace in a line from the geologist Sir Charles Lyell: “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.” In that timeless state–and not in 1966–Frieda and Philander are just humans in love. He plays a game where they pretend they only have 43 cents left in the world. She finds it impractical–he loves how it evens everything out, just as love does: when she’s not there, other people seem filled with “rags” and he’s just a married schoolteacher with an identity pass. Without her, Philander’s pride is built on a lie; he can lose her and it in a moment.

Philander may be intense, but Frieda is strong. She wants his pride to be built on her love. To live the truth she’ll give up everything–but Philander won’t sacrifice his family for endless uncertainty. Blind to her courage, with no illusions about prejudice, he’s furious that he can’t protect Frieda from the danger of loving him.

All talk of sacrifice dies when they’re caught, strobe lights seizing them as they dive for shelter. A policeman reads the accusation–as if the details of who entered which door and when were sufficient to condemn. Now Statements fragments into dramatic depositions. Trying to explain what they can’t regret, Frieda and Philander almost switch personalities. She defiantly explains how they met: he came to check out books in the library where she worked. Foundering on his own innocence, he ends with “Nothing to say.”

Separated, they speak from their own bitter apartness. Frieda vows to hold on to him with everything she has. Philander wonders at a world that lets him do everything–eat, breathe, sleep–but not love. And at a God who has just stripped him of arms, legs, eyes–everything but an emptiness that can’t be hurt anymore. So much for the dignity of living in a land older than life.

Statements offers no Romeo and Juliet tragic catharsis, no redemption through death. There’s nothing poetic in lovers going to jail because of their skin. Yet Fugard gives his people lines more lyrical than he ever lavished on other plays: in the word as much as the act, these lovers’ apartness defiantly stands out.

Meryl Friedman’s unforced staging delivers it all. To hear these lines is to feel their inevitability. just as effectively, Friedman balances the lovers’ vulnerability against their ardor. Romeo and Juliet should be this universal.

Harry Lennix, stunning as Levee in Pegasus Players’ Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is phenomenal as a good man in a bad land. Matching his risky, full-throttle acting is Julia Smith’s very untimid Frieda, a complex woman you want to know longer than the play permits. Dev Kennedy is the no-nonsense cop whose soul has conveniently shrunk just enough to fit the Immorality Act. The accents are impeccable.

In Advice to the Players, which premiered at Louisville’s 1986 Humana Festival, American playwright Bruce Bonafede depicts two black South African actors caught in a vicious political cross fire. Robert Oboza and Oliver Manzi, two merry pranksters, only want to act; ever since they met in prison and discovered acting was all they had to fight with and now they’ve been famous for it. Now it’s 1981, the two are about to perform Waiting for Godot at a U.S. international theater festival, and life suddenly trespasses on art. A lawyer representing the international boycott of South Africa tells the festival director that employing South African actors will confer approval on a hateful system and break the apartheid quarantine. If Godot isn’t dropped, his protesters will shut down the entire festival.

Our sympathies are clear: Oboza and Manzi only want to work, they suffered enough censorship in South Africa, and they’re not white Afrikaners out to play football for big bucks. Ironically Manzi even wants the police to stop the demonstrators; he’s sick of power freaks who think they know what’s best for him–and would cost him his craft. After Godot the two just want to go to New York to open a fine new play by Athol Fugard (nice symbiosis this).

So far the actors’ choice is clear: to protect their livelihood and freedom of expression. But Emily Ngome, an old friend and the wife of one of black South Africa’s great martyrs, tells them the African National Congress (here called the Council) wants them to resign from the festival in order to protest a recent political murder by Pretoria’s secret police.

It’s a rotten no-win situation. If they stay and perform, the Council might kill them and persecute their families. If they renounce the festival, the South African government will strip them of all visas and “ban” them through virtual house arrest. Either way they’re done with acting or any work.

“Who are my people?” Oboza wonders. “You’ve become inhuman.” He won’t. He remembers a harrowing jail incident where he almost chose death over surrendering a dead comrade. His current moral dilemma is the same. As he discovered then, artistic freedom means little when your people are at war.

Still Oboza and Manzi get the last word: they imagine themselves as purely Estragon and Vladimir, living only onstage, in control of their lives. (It’s the same apolitical realm of Philander’s “no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”) But Beckett’s tramps had no such freedom, nor do blacks in South Africa. The purity of the stage is the theater’s greatest illusion.

Here, too, Lifeline hits gold. Eric Simonson (who directed Godot for Bailiwick Repertory) shrewdly shifts our sympathies, sharply contrasting art and life and using his actors’ assurance to smooth over the plot’s telescoped crises. As Manzi, Don Mayo (another Ma Rainey powerhouse as Toledo) puts his stentorian voice to eloquent use; everything Mayo says sounds like it’s from the mouth of God (I hope I never hear him tell a dirty joke). Lennix’s Oboza effectively combines an actor’s defensive mockery with the man’s uncoached fury. As the well-intentioned festival director, Kennedy is all decent American confusion, and Chuck Goad deftly puts us off as the plastic lawyer for the boycott. Finally, as Emily Ngome, Diane White works up to a passion Winnie Mandela would understand. If only for one night, so can we. Get caught in these acts.

Lifeline’s triumph benefits from Marlgorzata Komorowska’s flexible, abstract backdrop, Peter Gottlieb’s contrasted warm darkness and ruthless light, and Laura Cunningham’s cross-cultural costumes.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.