saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
My Children! My Africa!
13th August 2015
Photography © Boris Mitkov
English teacher Mr M (Anthony Ofoegbu) is hosting a debating contest between his star pupil, Thami (Nathan Ives-Moiba) and visiting competitor, Isabel (Rose Reynolds). Thami is well-liked, and Isabel is white, female, from another school, from the city rather than the poorer countryside and from a well-off family with black slaves. And yet - spoiler alert - she wins. She makes a compelling case for her side and there's something quite exceptional about her that we notice from the very beginning - as do Mr M and Thami, inviting her back to Zolile High School to debate some more and even enter an inter-school English literature competition.
Bearing in mind that Athol Fugard's play My Children! My Africa! is set in Camdeboo some 30 years ago during Apartheid, the instant rapport between Isabel and Thami is doomed from the start. The two of them are passionate about literature, forging an intellectual rather than a physical connection. With theirs being a purely platonic relationship built on a thirst for knowledge, it feels even more tragic that they're forced apart - all they want to do is study together, challenge each other on a cerebral level, support each other. It's impossible to justify why that kind of bond shouldn't be allowed or indeed, encouraged.
Whenever Isabel and Thami speak of books, their eyes light up, and there's a genuine sense of excitement. As Isabel admits she was scared to visit Zolile High the first time but now feels like she has found another family there, we find ourselves just beaming with pride: she brings hope. Isabel has an innocent mind; she is a sponge willing and able to soak up new facts and ideas, and the conclusion she makes for herself without any fear or hate to guide her is that she wants to be friends with Thami and Mr M. She sees them as her equals, intellectual sparring partners and likeable human beings. Isabel comes from a position of privilege - Apartheid is currently working in her family's favour - however, she rejects it nonetheless. Her instinctive passion for fairness drives us to weep on more than one occasion. Reynolds puts in such a credible and magnificent performance, we don't feel manipulated by her; we feel honoured to spend time with her.
As for Mr M, Thami raises the thorny question of whether we should applaud him for teaching a reduced State-approved syllabus or demonise him for not protesting against having to do so. For me, Mr M has complexities to his character, of course he does, he's human, but he's trying to do his best in an imperfect system. Intense monologues by both male leads allow us to see both sides, but for me, Mr M's actions are driven by a paternal love for his charges. He genuinely wants his pupils to succeed, to go as far as possible, and to him, an older man who has seen much more than Thami, he sees a choice of life plus an inferior education, or death. Mr M can't visualise that third option that Thami can - he doesn't reject it, he just takes what he believes to be the pragmatic view. It doesn't fit with Thami's ideals, however it doesn't make him less of an ally.
Mr M's paternal feelings towards his pupils are obvious from his words and his behaviour - Ofoegbu may be playing the grown-up here, but when his character talks about literature, he shows the same wide-eyed enthusiasm as Reynolds and Ives-Moiba's. In the darker, bleaker moments when he reveals his fears for his children and his country, and his own assessment of himself, we do see another side to Mr M. However, it doesn't make us adore him any less, it just rounds out the part.
Nancy Surnam's set design is incredibly powerful and well thought-out. It doesn't just evoke the time period and location, it gets us really thinking about the issues the play explores before the metaphorical curtain even goes up. Not only are the characters kept apart from each other by the caged structure - there's one door for whites, another for blacks - we're also cut off, with chicken wire separating the stage from the audience. It's not normal to have barbed wire get between us and a production, so our instinctive reaction is to feel put out, find it a bit strange and ask why it's necessary - immediately prompting us to challenge the need for segregation of any kind.
Directors Roger Mortimer and Deborah Edgington send the actors out of the appropriate doors between scenes, and have them wait behind the stage in segregated seating areas, their heads bowed. Whenever they're not part of the direct action, we can still see them literally sitting in a white box or black box, reinforcing the prevalence of racial segregation in the 1980s. It's an uncomfortable reminder, and a clever decision to not merely send them off-stage. Fugard's script is written beautifully and puts across some insightful arguments, but his mighty words are given even more power by Surnam, Mortimer and Edgington's work in the background, chipping away at us on a less conscious level.
My Children! My Africa! shows us the best and worst of humanity. You might argue that the production has lost its power with time and politics having moved on somewhat, but sometimes, it's worth looking at how far we've come to remind ourselves of why we shouldn't return. This an important and beautiful revival which reinforces a message of optimism and equality that I hope was already there in our hearts.
My Children! My Africa! opened on 4th August and runs until 29th August 2015 at Trafalgar Studios.
Nearest tube station: Charing Cross (Northern, Bakerloo)