The Heather Theatre's production examines the power of words.
Darren Constantine, Anja Akstin, Betty Jeune
Space is no limitation for The Heather Theatre on W. Hillsborough Ave. With only 35 seats in the house and a stage that (at first glance) doesn’t seem very accommodating, superb casting and play selection have made The Heather a force that rivals Tampa venues that hold hundreds.
On Fri., June 12, Tony Award-winning Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! (1990) premiered at The Heather, directed by founder Kathryn Laughlin. The three-character play examines generational dissensions in segregated South Africa in 1985.
Opening in a small classroom in the all-male black school, Zolile High School, in the township of Camdebo, the stage was set only with a teacher’s desk covered in books, a tiny chalk board and a couple of modest benches. Standing in front of each bench, two students dressed in classic school uniforms (pleated grey skirt and pants, burgundy blazer and sweater vest, white knee highs) engage in a class debate about whether male and female students should have separate syllabuses. The debate is monitored by a teacher, listening intently from his desk.
The two students — Thami Mbikwana representing Zolile High School and Isabel Dyson from a nearby all-white high school — direct their closing arguments toward the audience. Played by the ridiculously beautiful Anja Akstin, Isabel is eager and articulate. Thami, played by Betty Jeune, exuded a smug charisma and displayed a razor-sharp wit from the jump.
Left alone in the classroom after Isabel wins the debate, the two students engage in playful banter, displaying the most innocent and endearing qualities of their personalities. They discuss the differences in their schools, families and lifelong plans — fresh-faced Isabel being from a privileged white town and Thami being from the impoverished black township called “The Location.” There is a definite chemistry between the two, and they forge an immediate connection despite complete political/social dissimilarities.
Akstin plays Isabel with a confidence and intelligence that is irresistible. She is self-assured and driven. Jeune’s portrayal of Thami is equally enthralling — funny, charming and thoughtful.
Akstin, Jeune and Constantine’s South African accents were convincing and consistent. The most awe-inspiring acting of the evening belonged to Betty Jeune. There was not a flaw to be found in her portrayal of male character Thami, which was perfect in dialect and mannerism — every second of her performance as the young man was wonderfully believable.
After Mr. M invites Isabel to team up with Thami for a literature competition, the two characters engage in rapid-fire battles of wit, spewing immense amounts of knowledge about Keats, Shelly and Lord Byron. The mile-a-minute dialogue in these scenes was delivered seamlessly by Akstin and Jeune, the two actors hardly ever stumbling over their words.
With most of the focus being on the dialogue, there was very little blocking throughout the performance. Most of the action in the play takes place in the classroom. This reinforced the idea that education is the epicenter of My Children! My Africa! Until the final scene, the set never changes, and the actors are always costumed in their traditional school uniforms, Mr. M in his teacher's suit. For the three characters, the classroom symbolizes solace and safety amid the social unrest in the Location.
Each actor had the strongest identity and presence on stage individually when performing their monologues alone. Standing center stage, lit only by a dim spotlight and addressing the audience, each character exposes personal ideas they would never share in the classroom. Mr. M warmly describes his deep love of teaching, explaining he wants to “keep hope alive” in his students. Thami’s monologue reveales his opposition to Mr. M’s ideas about education. He no longer believes in the “room full of promises” that the classroom once represented. He is now convinced that as a young black man, he is not allowed dreams, and that he is a part of a generation of tired, defeated men and women.
In the play's second half, Thami has joined the revolt in Camdebo, boycotting the high school and thereby dismantling his relationship with Mr. M and Isabel. The classroom has turned from a safe haven into a building under attack. With Mr. M hiding out inside, the set is darkened and the sound of rioting and destruction can be heard on audio loop in the background. Thami runs into the classroom no longer wearing his school uniform. Now adorned in a hoodie and jeans, the costume change represents Mr. M greatest fear — Thami's rejection of the educational system. In this scene, the power exists not only in the words of the characters, but in the mania and desperation physically exhibited by the two men.
Working in coalition with the intense interaction between Mr. M and Thami, the dramatic lighting and sound effects were emotionally provocative, and there was an enormous amount of tension in the theater as the play reached a climax. Isabel and Thami's final meeting softened the intensity, Akstin's eternal sweetness bringing much of the audience to tears.
It is in these final scenes that Laughlin's direction is most effective. Each actor in Laughlin's adaptation of Fugard's political/social commentary managed to capture the intense passion and fervor of each character, and illuminate very real social issues.
At its core, My Children! My Africa! is character- and dialogue-driven. There is an enormous amount of talking going on — much of it being extended monologues. The actors’ ability to memorize such a massive amount of copy and deliver it in unfaltering South African accents was an amazing feat.
Still, the script is powerfully and brilliantly written. Mr. M teaches the students about the weight of words, and our ability to use them as weapons. And without a doubt, My Children! My Africa! cuts the soul deep.