(Review by Tulis McCall)
In a classroom of Zolile High School in Soweto, Mr. M (James A. Williams) whose real name is Anela Myalatya is refereeing a debate which has dissolved into a respectable shouting match. Isabel Dyson (Allie Gallerani), the young white guest at this all black school, and Thami (pronounced Tommy) Mbikwana (Tyrone Williams), one of the school’s most promising students, have lost control of their points of view and are galloping away with argument. When Mr. M pulls them back to civility we hear their positions in their summary. Dyson is for women’s equality in every sphere of society, and Mbikwana is for separate but equal.
So from the outset we know we are on a slightly different footing. Fugard has expanded his argument against apartheid to include the ideas of the black South Africans as well as the white. Yipes. And he hands the responsibility of listening to us. Mr. M tells his students that anyone can talk and argue – but the real winners are the ones who are challenged to listen intelligently.
And that is what we are asked to do with this play - a lot of listening.
Dyson has just had a wakeup call debating before a black audience who were not the normal subservient people she was used to dealing with, and she liked the feeling. Possibility was rearing its head. Mr. M sees hope – a terrible beast he normally keeps chained up – in the intellectual pairing of Dyson and Mbikwana. And Mbikwana sees little beyond the need for active rebellion against the system represented by his mentor and his new friend.
Mr. M invites Dyson to partner with Thami in an Interschool English Literature Quizz – where they will study all the white dead writers – and win not only a monetary prize but perhaps a full scholarship for Thami to attend college. She accepts with gusto.
The work begins, and we see these two students challenge each other into a true and deep friendship. They live in a bubble inside the world of apartheid. In 1985 Nelson Mandela is only years away from being released, and the world of South Africa is breaking apart. Although Isabel is the daughter of middle class folk who own a drug store, she is light years away from “The Location,” which is the ghetto where the blacks live in shacks made of cardboard and tin. The possibilities she sees, and that Mr. M feels as well skirt the rage that is fomenting and go directly for the gold. Her hope is simplistic while his is deliberate.
Thami, on the other hand, is without hope and stands in the center of rage. He has had enough of well meaning people like Mr. M try and tell him to stay the course and follow the rules. The rules have done nothing but rob his people (80% of the population) of land (90% white owned) and civil rights. As the Soweto School Boycott approaches he chooses the side of the protestors.
Mr. M chooses the side of the school administration. He sees the school as the only salvation for his students. And they, sadly, see him only as a trator.
Isabel is safely removed from the violence, and it is she who has the last word of promise and hope. Fugard seems to be telling us that when the oppressed fight against one another, it is the ruling class that wins in the end.
Athol Fugard’s dictionary defines debate as “the orderly and regulated discussion of an issue with opposing viewpoints receiving equal time and consideration.” He has chosen this literal structure for this play. Unfortunately Ruben Santiago-Hudson adheres to these rules of debate instead of playing against them and uncovering the unexpected. This production is logical and orderly and on the dull side. The only discord comes from the actor’s accents that are all over the place and miss the mark all around.
What should challenge our minds and clang at the doors of our conscience barely holds our attention.
A missed opportunity indeed.
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Packs a one-two wallop. It deserves both of those exclamation points."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Most of the time, “My Children! My Africa!” relies on earnest speechifying."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s muscular direction and a trio of intense performances rescue the production from becoming a [political] debate."
David Sheward for Back Stage
"Overlong and a bit preachy, but works itself up into a furious second act."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"Sensitively directed and beautifully performed."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...