A WHITE HIGH school girl lies on her belly on a school bench to read a spot of King Lear as she munches on an apple. There’s a sense of ‘how things should be’ in everything from her school uniform to her engagement with what is obviously homework. A black high school boy filters a petrol-soaked piece of cloth into a bottle as he fingers a cigarette lighter. The chasm in values breaks your heart, but says it as it must be said if you’re engaging South African values. Indeed, it’s difficult to get into the shoes of another person, and easier to judge their circumstances with the harshness of your own perspectives. Particularly if you’re a half-formed teenager, even a very bright one. This is something that the cast and the audience discover in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!. It’s being reprised by the National Children’s Theatre as a touring programme for high schools, and the prescience of this work cannot be understated even if you are all done with high school.
It’s a play about the raw and bleeding discrepancy between haves and have nots that is so central to the complexities of South African existence. Cast in the mid 1980s, in the Eastern Cape, it showcases the fire and passion of black youth attempting to address the horror and shame of apartheid, counterpoised with the traditional educational values of white privilege. And it is here where we meet Isabel (Christine van Hees) and Thami (Phumlani Mdlalose), the respective cream of their own communities, in a debating match that’s something of an experiment, bringing together the energies of youth from contexts not that far from one another, geographically, but a million miles apart in every other way.
The teacher is an elderly man, fondly known as Mr M (Msuthu Makubalo) and while he’s the catalyst for the experiment, his values too are informed and potent. But in being of the previous generation he is intensely vulnerable.
The tale is not an easy one, peppered as it is with language that we just don’t use anymore, as it is a cipher of the kind of extreme violence that set our country on fire, literally in the mid 1980s. This play, which enjoyed its stage debut at the Market Theatre, with Kathy-Jo Wein and Rapulana Seiphemo opposite John Kani in 1989 is one that reaches beyond adults and to the youth in the audiences. It’s about choices and literature, the fury of impotence and how your well-intentioned parents can embarrass you into silence. Or your substitute parents can incite you into violence.
It is creatively staged, with a simple set that can be broken into metaphors of violence easily, but it isn’t clear why the decision was taken to erase the play’s interval. It’s a meaty work with lots to consume and the gap in the telling of the tale is a necessary one, particularly for younger audiences. Also, a valuable decision is taken in the cast changing into their costumes on stage. This lends a reflection that these are indeed performers, and the manner in which they adopt the age-specificity of their roles is strong and cogent.
Mdlalose plays the young firebrand from the ‘location’, who, armed with an intellect that surpasses most, is subject to the indignities of Bantu Education because he is black. It’s a crucial role, but his articulation is not always understandable, which is a pity as the text is rich with 1980s realities. He’s beautifully supported by the performances of van Hees and Makubalo who lend the texture of the age of their characters as much as they give the text vehemence.
It’s a play that will change your perceptions and your mind, and make you realise that student shenanigans in the 20-teens are as hot and relevant as they were nearly 40 years ago. Or vice versa.
- My Children! My Africa! is written by Athol Fugard and directed by Siphumeze Khundayi and Francois Theron. It features creative input by Sarah Roberts (set and costumes) and Jane Gosnell (lighting) and is performed by Msuthu Makubalo, Phumlani Mdlalose and Christine van Hees in a touring programme hosted by the National Children’s Theatre, in Parktown. The theatre will be staging a couple of public performances toward the end of May. Visit their website, or call: 011-484-1584.