The press opening Wednesday of Athol Fugard's "My Children! My Africa!" at the Los Angeles Theatre Center marks the third time that this play--and this La Jolla Playhouse production of it--has surfaced in Southern California.
The drama, staged by Fugard himself, erupted as a huge hit at La Jolla last August, moved for a brief, financially disastrous time to the Henry Fonda Theatre in November, and is back in town now with one cast change and the relative security of a subscription audience--relative, because it did not keep ticketholders at Wednesday's performance from leaving at intermission, any more than it prevented those who remained for the searing second act to leap to their feet at the end.
We know Fugard is talky. And it remains something of a problem for this amazing piece, even in this finely calibrated production, to ensure that patrons return after the lengthy, literary first act. (Incomprehensible to this writer but true, nonetheless.) Those who stay are abundantly rewarded, even though it is ironically the second act that, despite its emotional high voltage, could use some paring down.
This play is, after all, all about words. About their tremendous power--to dissuade, persuade, elevate, manipulate and triumph without breaking skin or shedding blood. Fugard is his own best example. "If a struggle needs weapons," he implores through the mouthpiece of his dedicated black teacher, Mr. M, " give it words! "
His play dazzles with its words. They govern its sadness and its passion--that of Mr. M (Brock Peters) for the supremacy of language; that of his favorite student Thami (Sterling Macer Jr.) for freedom too long deferred; that of the brilliant white South African schoolgirl, Isabel (Melora Hardin), for life in all its force, even when that eventually includes betrayal.
Incredible. Kicking off with the rather simple premise of a lively inter-school debate, "My Children! My Africa!" goes on to explore the complex matters of the poison of apartheid and violence, and the nature of ethics and friendship in socially turbulent South Africa.
What starts out as a benign school workout between black debating team leader Thami and white debating team leader Isabel--for whom the visit to this black school in the "location" (township) is an exhilarating adventure--ends up as Greek tragedy. The hero/victim is Anela Myalata--Mr. M for short--the 57-year-old bachelor teacher in baggy pants whose world is ripped apart by the irrationality of events. If he is the sacrificial lamb, Thami and Isabel are victims of a fallout they cannot control. In between, words are spoken and lessons taught, even if some come too late.
Rarely has a play been so verbal and also so profoundly stirring. Having seen "My Children! My Africa!" at La Jolla with the excellent Nancy Travis, and seeing it now with Hardin, who fairly bristles with intelligence as the ebullient Isabel, it is proof positive that the words carry the players as much as they carry the play.
Hardin may not shatter quite as wrenchingly as did Travis in the face of horror and vanished logic, but she has a more shimmering brilliance in the early scenes and emerges with a stronger embrace of hope at the end. The trade-off is throughly acceptable.
Macer is stronger than ever as the sweet, conflicted Thami. His performance has matured into steel and his smile could brighten cities, but he must watch a tendency to slur syllables in the difficult-to-grasp South African dialect. We can't afford to lose a word.
In the end, it is Brock Peters who devastates as the beleaguered, shuffling teacher--a lonely, slightly clownish, tender moralist, already a shadow of his younger self, crushed in the ugly jaws of careless revolution. There is something utterly breathtaking in his fall--the sparrow's divinity, as Shakespeare put it. His desperate pleadings with Thami for sanity to prevail, when it's already too late by the political clock, knock about the mind long after the play is over.
Preachy though it can be, long though it is (it is never too late to consider saying less), this reissue of "My Children! My Africa!" only reaffirms the thundering maturity of the writing. It is Fugard's best piece by far.
The simplicity of the setting by Douglas Stein and Susan Hilferty, Hilferty's class-differentiating costumes and Dennis Parichy's careful lighting all recognize that this is a theater of words and that these words speak thoughts.
Older children need to see this, especially inner-city children.
"My Children! My Africa!," Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown. Tuesdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends March 24. $22-$27. (213) 627-5599. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.