(Review by Tulis McCall)
I have been a serious admirer of Athol Fugard since 1975. I was living in Woodstock, Connecticut and watched David Susskind interviewing Winston Ntshona and John Kani who were appearing in Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island. The TV was black and white, and everyone was smoking. Sizwe Banzi is Dead isa play about a man in South Africa who assumes the identity of a dead man in order that he, Sizwe, could return to his wife. He has to write and tell her that he, Sizwe Banzi, is dead. The Island is the story of two men in prison (on Robin Island I think). They are cell mates who spend the little free time they have – when not moving stones from one pile to another and back again - rehearsing a scene from Antigone. At the top of the play, one of the men receives word that he will be released. His cell-mate, in order to save his own life declares that from that moment on the man is dead to him. After this they perform the scene where Creon and Antigone face off.
Seeing these plays shifted my cargo.
Fugard has a gift for two person plays. Perhaps because they are easy to produce, and his playwriting career began underground in South Africa, at a time when a person needed to be able to pick up stakes and move on short notice. Indeed, we are fortunate that this man is still alive. Or maybe he was influenced by the Greeks (ya think?). What he does, however, is to take advantage of all this form has to offer. While some authors take the short-cut and go wide, Fugard goes deep. Having been born into and raised with apartheid, he is a man who chose to look evil in the face and discovered that it had a warren of roots. It was not enough to cut off the head. Like kudzu, it had to be ripped out roots and all, and then burned. And he was one to take on that task.
Zachariah (Coleman Domingo) and Morris (Scott Shepherd) are brothers. One is very black and one is very white –red-headed in fact. We swallow this because Fugard asks us to, and it is this first step that gnaws at the audience throughout. If two men can be related and look so different, how is life normal?
Welllllllll, it ain’t. And that is the center of this story. Life is neither normal nor logical. It is not humane for people to live in shacks made of tin and have one set of clothes, and be slaves without that title. Morrie has been out in the world passing for white, and now he has come back to live with his brother because the world was too much for him to handle alone. Zach works at an unnamed factory where his job is to do whatever he is told. Mostly he is told to stand by the gate. Just stand. Don’t look. Don’t talk. Don’t think about your feet that are raw with sores.
To fend off boredom the two brothers read the classifieds, looking for someone who wants a pen pal. They find Ethel whose interests are nature and rock n’ role. Morrie dashes of a letter from Zach (who cannot read or write) that is soon answered, with a photograph of Ethel that shows her to be a white woman. Oops. Against Morrie’s judgment – if Zach is caught corresponding with a white women he can be arrested or killed – a correspondence begins. When Ethel writes to say she will be visiting their town – the shit hits the fan. The only thing they can think of is for Morrie to meet Ethel. For this he will need new clothes. For that they will sacrifice the money they have saved as a down payment on a little farm.
Once Morrie is in the new suit the air molecules change around the brothers. Morrie in a suit is too stark, too visible a reminder of the world outside their shack. They react with a sort of rough and tumble game reminiscent of their childhood. But this game peels open like a rotten onion and the guts of their buried thoughts and emotions spill out.
Coleman Domingo reveals himself as a master of innuendo and the subtle touch. This is welcome news. Scott Shepherd brings a loopy and unbalanced certainty mixed with fear that is both vulnerable and chilling. This is a brilliant pairing of talent.
In the end, I suppose this is a dated piece. It is wordy, especially the first act, and tedious. It could easily be shifted into a one act, I believe. But once the setup is completed and the rollercoaster released, this is a gripping and frightening tale. Fugard’s dedication and direction are fearless. He wields a scalpel with a delicate hand and drives it directly into your head, because touching you heart is just not enough.
Fugard wants to see what you will do because that is the proof of what you feel.
"Never truly plumbs the play’s anguished depths"
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"The play moves slowly and at times gets ponderous before delivering a wallop."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"The first half lulls you into a snooze; the second slaps you awake.... So be patient: Here, the end justifies the means." Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"The show keeps picking up steam and ends with a Beckettian wallop."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"Wrenching, deeply humane drama."
David Cote for Time Out NY
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"A sobering theatrical experience."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...