Children's Theatre

All my tomorrows in a burnt dictionary

MyChildrenMyAfricaSAST

FRIENDS no longer? Thami (Zolani Shangase) and Isabella (Nieke Lombard) confront grown up challenges through a high school lens. Photograph courtesy National Children’s Theatre.

IN EVERY GENERATION, real issues need to be taken seriously by the youth. Ours is no different. And these ‘real issues’ include struggle history. It’s a curious thing to be able to watch the focused attention awarded to a play about youngsters in 1980s South Africa, torn and wretched as it was with violence and a State of Emergency. And it is curious when you look at the audience of My Children! My Africa! for whom the work is primarily mounted: they’re the hot-blooded equivalent of today’s society.

The play, penned by Athol Fugard is simple and complex simultaneously: one white girl named Isabella Dison (Nieke Lombard) and one black boy named Thami Mbikwana (Zolani Shangase) meet in the context of an inter high school debate and values of gender and privilege, of the past and the future, of security and anger come to the fore.

The catalyst is the township school’s teacher, Anela Myalatya, fondly known as Mr M (Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri). He represents a conservative attitude to the way in which society is igniting with racial fury: it’s not a popular position. This is a work about the love a teacher can have for a pupil and vice versa, as it is about the hot-headedness of teenagers in an explosive world where options are tossed to political chance.

My Children! My Africa! was published in 1990 and fast became a South African classic and a cipher for social values in this apartheid wrought society. These days, it’s a school setwork. This production is under the aegis of the National Children’s Theatre in Parktown, and was staged late last year at their theatre. This, however, is a new production, with a new cast, set and director.

The work boasts different theatrical achievements to the earlier rendition. It is not as violent, but more replete with evocative subtlety that explores the quirkiness of a soccer-loving teenager or a hockey-playing child with other responsibilities. Also, the work feels less text-heavy and it is not clear whether the director Matt Counihan has excised elements from the script, or whether his direction of this cast overrides the texty moments in the original. There is no interval in this production: and this is a strength: the momentum of the work would be damaged by a break. But further to all of this,  there are moments in this production when the formalities of being in a theatre and watching adult performers act simply falls away. The fluidity of the performances is continuous and the issues cast up are real.

The set is premised and works on the basic principles of school slates, allowing simple chalk to become a device of information-bearing words and gesture, and chalk dust-soiled blazers and fingers are par for the course.

The costume of Mr M, however, feels slightly off kilter: there is a moment in the work where he removes his jacket and the teenagers in the audience laugh spontaneously. It’s laughter which has to do with the cut of the performer’s trousers, and not his words or gestures. There is also a coat donned by this actor. It’s a three-quarter length, lined garment which doesn’t feel like the kind of coat that a school teacher of his means or context would own.

Having said that, this is an extremely well-honed and fiercely developed production, bound to stimulate debate amongst the youngsters in the auditorium and courage in older audience members about how our world should be allowed to turn on the potency of guttural, balanced and muscular debate.

  • My Children, My Africa is written by Athol Fugard and directed by Matt Counihan. It is performed by Nieke Lombard, Yamikani Mahaka-Phiri and Zolani Shangase and features design by Sarah Roberts (costume and set) and Jane Gosnell (lighting). It performs in the Rendezvous theatre, South African State Theatre, Pretoria, during the day, until May 23.
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