Wisdom Bridge Theatre

To South African playwright Athol Fugard, language is perhaps the most important weapon in the struggle for political reform. At one point in his My Children! My Africa! Mr. M, a well-respected black teacher, holds up a rock in one hand and an English dictionary in the other. They both weigh about the same, he says, but a rock is only a rock and a dictionary carries the force of the entire English language.

The characters of My Children! My Africa! fight battles with words against a backdrop of political strife. Everywhere we see how words and phrases can be twisted to gain political advantage. “Beware,” one character warns another. “Beware of the words that you use.”

The play opens with a debate between two prize students: Thami Mbikwana, a master orator from a poor black township, and Isabel Dyson, a white student visiting from a neighboring school. Their debate over whether women should receive the same education as men is moderated by the brilliant Mr. M, who warns them that they should never let their argument devolve into a shouting match–that they should always rely on reason to express their views.

Mr. M plans to use these two as a team in an upcoming interschool competition on English literature. Isabel and Thami practice for the competition by quizzing each other on the works of Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge, engaging in some friendly one-upmanship. But the plans for a partnership crumble when Thami becomes part of a violent antiapartheid struggle and refuses to listen to Mr. M: Thami believes he may be an informer against the cause.

Fugard uses the struggle between the passionate Thami and the intellectual Mr. M, which Isabel witnesses and sometimes attempts to mediate, to illustrate two different approaches to effecting political change: emotion battles reason in polemical dialogues, a battle that drives the play to its tragic conclusion.

Fugard’s brilliant characterizations make this play a fascinating excursion into the politics of South Africa. Each character’s motives and statements are completely understandable in this political context. We sympathize with Mr. M’s desire to use reason to fight the oppressive system, and yet we understand Thami’s frustration with Mr. M’s teachings and his need to do something more concrete. And we can understand Isabel’s pain, caught between these two opposing forces.

The play is composed mainly of dialogues and long monologues that express each character’s background, feelings, and desires. There is very little action. But the powerful emotions behind the characters’ remarks make every speech and conversation a highly charged event. By the play’s close we understand Mr. M’s contention (and perhaps Fugard’s) that sometimes words speak louder than actions.

Under Terry McCabe’s direction, Wisdom Bridge Theatre’s production of My Children! My Africa! retains all the power and emotion of Fugard’s script. Ernest Perry Jr. as Mr. M, Tab Baker as Thami, and Michelle Elise Duffy as Isabel deliver compelling performances, their diction and dialects impeccable. There is not a dishonest moment in the entire evening. The performers’ interactions are thoroughly believable, and you can see them savoring every word of the script.

Chip Yates’s excellent scenic design allows us to move from a South African classroom to a ramshackle house with only a lighting change (devised by Michael Rourke). Like the play, this production seeks to appeal to both the mind and the heart. It succeeds on both levels.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.