Political playwrights need to think strategically, and in our time no writer’s been more wisely strategic than Athol Fugard. His 1989 play, My Children! My Africa!, revived for the Signature Theatre’s Fugard season, provides a prime example of strategic thinking: The character whose viewpoint most of the audience is likely to share is also the one who commits an unforgivable act, resulting in terrible grief and loss. And his opponent, while espousing armed struggle for a cause with a totalitarian streak, not only forgives the unforgivable act but tries to save the perpetrator’s life. Human beings, Fugard knows, are more than their political views.
The time is 1984, the beginning of the end of South Africa’s centuries of colonial agony. It will take five years of brutal violence and five more of bitter contention before the nation moves on to its new, post-colonial agony. South Africa’s children will not have a happy time of it. Fugard’s hero—an inexact word—is a township high school teacher (James A. Williams), an aging bachelor who has given his life to his classroom. What children learn and how well they learn it are his only concerns. His neighbors never call him anything except “Teacher” or “Mr. M.” A black man who has never traveled physically beyond the area where he resides, he voyages by means of books; his role model in life is Confucius.
Mr. M has wickedly violated his Confucian objectivity, he confesses, by having a favorite pupil, Thami (Stephen Tyrone Williams). From Thami’s intelligence and eagerness to learn, Mr. M hopes to mold one of the educated professional men—doctors, lawyers, teachers—whom he sees as the future saviors of South Africa, employing their brains, and the moral integrity he strives to instill in his pupils, to subvert and ultimately to transform its unjust social order. Thami’s articulateness and his brilliance as a debater supply Mr. M with a first step in the subversive process: Under pressure from world opinion, some of the superficial restraints of the apartheid system have been loosened slightly, enabling Mr. M to invite Isabel (Allie Gallerani), a student from a nearby all-white girls’ school, to debate Thami on the seemingly innocuous subject of equality for women. Thami takes the negative side, and Isabel wins the debate.
Encouraged by the debate’s success, Mr. M pushes further: A statewide quiz contest in English literature has been announced, with a large cash prize, and he arranges for the two high schools to field a joint team, consisting of Thami and Isabel. Much cramming and coaching is needed. Amid the welter of authors’ biographies and passages from famous poems that follows, we watch Isabel’s respect and admiration for Mr. M increasing, as well as the burgeoning friendship between her and Thami. The possibility of sexual attraction between the two adolescents pulsates silently under these scenes, though fastidiously unmentioned in the script and scrupulously ignored by Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s tautly tight-lipped production: In this play’s world, some roads not taken are too hazardous even for their existence to be acknowledged.
The competition, with the team’s expected win, never comes off. What happens instead is history, agony, and (offstage) violence, in the course of which Mr. M and Thami become irrevocable opponents, their enmity destroying one and sending the other into exile, while Isabel becomes an increasingly perplexed and helpless onlooker. The last scene belongs to the children, but the children do not belong to each other, and—with the history of the decade after 1984 still to come—there is not yet a South Africa for them to belong to. The traumas of history have made a situation in which, because all are exiles, anyone may do the horrifically bad or the heroically good thing: Its politics have become too chaotic to explain people’s choices.
Fugard’s prose, though sometimes a little over-methodical, never dampens the pain with which his play is fraught, and Santiago-Hudson’s cast does it fearsomely discreet justice. Gallerani, fresh-faced and lively, occasionally gets trapped by her role’s limitations into repeating her effects, but James A. Williams’s staunch, effusive Mr. M sweeps whole worlds onto the stage, and to watch the complex emotions that chase one another across Stephen Tyrone Williams’s face at intense moments is an adventure in itself.