Two Black men in robes and wigs reminiscent of ancient Greek theater stand facing in each other in profile. The man on the right has his arm outstretched toward the other and is standing slightly above him on what looks like a slab of rock. The lighting is purplish in hue.
Kai A. Ealy (left) and Ronald L. Conner in The Island at Court Theatre Credit: Michael Brosilow

Exquisitely paced and intellectually explosive, The Island at Court Theatre is a profoundly moving work of art. From the first moment, this production (directed by Gabrielle Randle-Bent, Court’s associate artistic director) seizes the audience and thrusts them into the world of two political prisoners of apartheid and doesn’t let go, even long after the play (written by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona) has ended. The exceptionally talented Ronald L. Conner and Kai A. Ealy play Winston and John (roles originated in 1973 by Ntshona and Kani), two affable cellmates on Robben Island, the same island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned before apartheid fell. The stage is set starkly in Yeaji Kim’s design; in the center, a giant stone slab implying a scale swings heavily from back to front, soberly reflecting the lack of nuance in law. The tableaux is encircled with amber sparkling sand, evoking images of a magical circle of protection: a sacred space where one’s fundamental humanity might be retained, even amidst the brutality of cruel captors.

The Island
Through 12/4: Wed-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat-Sun 2 and 7:30 PM; no show Thu 11/24, audio description Sat 12/3 2 PM (touch tour 12:30 PM), open captions Sun 12/4 2 PM, ASL interpretation Sun 12/4 7:30 PM; Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, 773-753-4472, courttheatre.org, $40.50-$82

Within this circle Winston and John toil in painfully repetitive hard labor, and make plans to perform Antigone for the other prisoners. As complications arise, the bonds of their friendship are tested, and the Antigone performance takes on deeper meaning. The men and the audience are spurred to interrogate difficult questions. Is fighting for justice worth your life? What meaning is there in life without freedom? These are the kinds of questions not easily answered with words, and Randle-Bent deftly leverages silence and humor to illuminate the darkness. The Island is a riveting, philosophically sophisticated play that is a must-see for fans of meaty theater.