Athol Fugard wrote "My Children! My Africa!" in the wake of violent protest against South Africa's system of apartheid. When it hit New York in 1989, critics had the luxury of criticizing the playwright's long-windedness and the academic bent of a play that stretches past 2½ hours.
Watching Park Square Theatre's production of "My Children!" on Friday night, the violent spasms of people who consider themselves oppressed felt more urgent than ever. This is a play about ideas, about generational mores and intractable politics that govern our societies. It is a cry for education and patience; it is a cry for seizing action and making oneself heard with the blunt bludgeon rather than the well-reasoned argument.
James A. Williams, who played the central role of Mr. M when this play was produced at Signature Theater in 2012, and Jamil Jude have staged the work at Park Square's Boss Stage with incisive immediacy. Fugard is prolix, no question, and the long monologues that dominate this play will test your attention span.
But hang on because the world demands our attention more than ever and Fugard presents three characters — stakeholders in his country's future in 1986 — who articulate the endless debate about violent and nonviolent response.
Warren Bowles plays Mr. M, a teacher who dreams that his prized pupil, Thami (Cage Sebastian Pierre), and a white girl from a neighboring school, Isabel (Devon Cox), can team up to win a debate competition. In the bargain, they will symbolize the fruits of cooperation and tolerance.
But as the students go about preparing their briefs, it is easy to see Thami's alienation grow. How can the study of European authors resonate with a lad who feels strongly his African roots? At one point, Isabel invites him to lunch at her house — a gesture of comity but also privilege. Thami feels the humiliation that he could never reciprocate.
Mr. M, who intends to inspire hope in his classroom, has perhaps schooled his protégé too well. Hope, as Mr. M puts it, has broken out in Thami's heart and it has pushed the young man toward a radical response. Mr. M pleads against that path.
Williams and Jude use the Boss stage with smart efficiency. Michael Kittel's lighting design finds key places for actors to work within Lance Brockman's simple cinderblock classroom and the directors ask for big performances.
The South African dialect does not arise easily from the actors' mouths although their commitment to the material seems unimpeachable. Bowles shifts from a kind patriarchy to stubborn anger as Thami becomes more radicalized. Pierre is a fierce young actor who relishes Thami's intelligence and his discontent. Cox carries well an air of privilege and umbrage when she feels her generosity is rebuked.
Fugard wrote in a specific time and place. That is precisely what makes this work timeless and disturbing more than 25 years later.