The show opens during a spirited debate between two South African students, Isabel Dyson (Kiki Milner) and Thami Mbikwana (Daniel Hodges). Thami's teacher, Anela Myalatya, affectionately called Mr. M (Ron Himes), has arranged for students from a white private school for girls to visit his public school for black students under the pretense of a debate, while hoping to foster a bridge of respect and understanding between the students.
After the debate, a friendship is struck between Isabel and Thami, one that is given the opportunity to grow when the two students, and their schools, team up to participate in an academic challenge. Both students seem eager to learn, they show great affection for the subject matter and a deepening and true friendship, even after Thami begins to openly question the value of his education. He has been attending meetings with other South Africans who are preparing to stage a series of strikes in protest of apartheid.
Thami's involvement with the strike and growing impatience; Isabel's attempts to truly understand and remain a friend to Thami; and Mr. M's desire to avoid confrontation by focusing on change through education form a tense triangle. It is through these three sets of eyes and circumstances that we experience the beginning of the end of legally enforced apartheid in South Africa.
Featuring artist-in-residence Ron Himes as the beloved but doomed teacher Mr. M, the show was a constantly shifting exploration, as the script did not simply focus on race and enforced segregation. It fearlessly examined the weight of non-familial relationships, the effectiveness of a policy of patience, and the lasting value of education. The use of violence as a means of achieving change is, naturally, an ever-present theme; intensifying from simmering possibility at the opening curtain to devastating and uncertain consequences at the close.
Himes leads the case with an excellent portrayal of the dedicated teacher. Mr. M's longing for a better South Africa for his students is palpable, as is the character's personal commitment to non-violence. It is this commitment, interpreted as both cowardice and compliance with the police enforcing apartheid, which ultimately leads to Mr. M's downfall. Himes reveals the teacher's mixed emotions, his hope for the students, his beliefs, and his desperation, with a forcefulness that does not strain credibility.
Hodges portrayal of Thami, and his many conflicting emotions, is moving and engaging, compelling the audience to hope for a happy resolution. His commitment, anger, and confusion were clearly visible on his face even as he acquiesced to his teacher's prompts and demands. Though there is obvious respect and affection between the teacher and student, the tension between Mr. M and Thami grows just as surely and inevitably as the violence escalates. Hodges and Himes fully explore the relationship between the two men, and the result is a sincere, honest portrayal that is quite effective.
Milner's Isabel is an equally strong, and stubborn, character, and Milner shows a quiet confidence while navigating Isabel's vacillating and uncertain response to the changes around her. As an interloper in Thami and Mr. M's life, Isabel often reflects the audience perspective, but does so on a deeply personal level. Milner's Isabel is forceful in her reactions, confused in her loyalties, yet, without question, she remains thoughtful and genuinely concerned for the two men. Her very real pain at the loss of Mr. M is countered by an equally real concern for Thami's life and future.
The script is a potent mix of ideas, and none of the questions posed are easily addressed or solved in a single play. To the author's credit "My Children! My Africa!" refuses to shy away from the subject matter just because the ideas can't be easily tied up and delivered to the audience. To the credit of the actors and director William Whitaker, they fully commit to the story, taking on the script's challenge and diving into the nuances and contradictions of their characters without hesitation.
"My Children! My Africa!" is a powerful story of apartheid, but its lessons and subject matter are no less applicable today than they were thirty years ago. The truth is, there are no easy answers, nothing to clearly tell us how to get along. It is important, however, that we take time to consider these challenges and to learn from those who came before us. Fugard's play is an involving and complex story that offers another opportunity, another perspective to consider.
The Washington University Performing Arts Department presented Athol Fugard's "My Children! My Africa!" November 21 through November 24, 2013. For more information on their season, visit pad.artsci.wustl.edu.