Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! takes place in 1984 and it premiered in ’89, shortly before South Africa began the legal dismantling of apartheid. But in the Signature Theatre Company’s earnest, painstaking revival, the piece feels a century old; its structural devices are just that deliberate, repetitive and grave. The theme—education can both enfranchise the poor and palliate them—remains fresh, but Fugard’s delivery system is quite old-fashioned: puttering exposition and superfluous soliloquies. Perhaps the politically awakened student Thami (Stephen Tyrone Williams), who declares that classrooms are “traps which have been carefully set to catch our minds,” would consider the play so dry and measured it’s effectively part of the problem.
In its time, of course, My Children! was an urgent and clarifying snapshot of a country undergoing violent paroxysms of change. It makes sense that Fugard would gingerly lay out both sides of the debate. Ardently upholding the value of Western-style schooling as a pathway to social change is the gentle, gradualist Mr. M (James A. Williams). His brilliant, high-spirited protégé, Thami, has grown secretly disillusioned with the classroom and sees no way to advance but in a mob. Shuttling between them is the white student, Isabel (Gallerani), who befriends Thami but cannot understand the depth of his anger and despair.
As with many Fugard works, the first act is leisurely, and the second erupts in conflict and lyricism. Several monologues underscore what we already know and slow the momentum. If the structure is often dull, the writing at least is serious and resonant, and the actors are fully committed. Stephen Tyrone Williams continues to be a fiercely compelling stage creature. Angry, cerebral, gently mocking and yet twisted with doubt, Williams’s Hamletish Thami is a memorable creation. The character’s future might be in danger, but the actor deserves high marks.—David Cote
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