Flawed Fugard can still be powerful Fugard

Actors Co-op presents a powerful revival of Athol Fugard's 'My Children! My Africa!'

“My Children! My Africa!”Athol Fugard’s 1989 three-hander, receives an often powerful revival at Actors Co-op that isn’t without some challenges yet makes its relevant case with integrity.

It transpires in a small town in South Africa's Eastern Cape Karoo, circa 1984, opening with an agitated debate between two exceptionally gifted teenagers. Thami Mbikwana (Aaron Jennings) is the star pupil at his black high school; Isabel Dyson (Maurie Speed) is a visiting brainiac from an all-white academy.

Under the eagle eye of Mr. M (Rodrick Jean-Charles), Thami’s teacher and surrogate father, the pair’s opposing positions on the role of women in South Africa and their post-debate congeniality foreshadows the societal polemic to come.

“Old-fashioned traditionalist” Mr. M wants them to enter an inter-school English lit competition. Isabel, Fugard’s voice of white conscience, is thrilled, newly awakened to a world she’d never considered.  However, Thami represents the emerging spirit of insurrection that would eventually end apartheid. "The time for whispering is past,” he says as Act 1 ends, leading to a harrowing conclusion.

What happens en route, punctuated by each archetype’s direct-address monologues, is heartfelt, intelligent and a shade overattenuated. The writing is poetic and frequently gripping, also speech-laden -- the power of words is a key theme -- and the human interactions feel all but preordained.

Yet Fugard has this subject in his marrow, and if director Inger Tudor favors sincerity over pace in places, her well designed staging sustains its play-of-ideas contours to the Act 2 fireworks.

Her actors are estimable, Jennings particularly adept at stillness and eruption, and though Speed is sometimes constrained by the dialect and Jean-Charles occasionally wrestles with the verbiage, all three exhibit impressive conviction.

“My Children! My Africa!” may be sporadically didactic, but it also offers thought-provoking, trenchant material for an audience to absorb.

“My Children! My Africa!” Actors Co-op, Crossley Theatre, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, also 2:30 p.m. March 28, May 2. Ends May 3. $20-$30. (323) 462-8460 or Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.


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