The clock is ticking. If we're not careful, we'll be remembered as the country where everyone arrived too late," the teacher warns. This grim counsel in South African playwright Athol Fugard's "My Children, My Africa" was issued just as the oppressive system of apartheid, which subjugated the country's black majority to harsh minority rule, was buckling under pressure from both within and outside the country's borders.
The speaker is one of three characters exploring the chasm between the greater political struggle and individual interaction that Fugard set in 1985, against the backdrop of real-life strikes and boycotts.
Apartheid may be gone, but Fugard's play still resonates with the difficulties of bridging the racial divide, problems brought vividly to life in Metropolitan Ebony Theatre's production of "My Children, My Africa," at Prince George's Community College.
This is a stark staging, with few theatrical trappings to divert attention from Fugard's words, delivered as both dialogue and monologue from the mouths of two students, one black and one white, and a dedicated black teacher who believes that education is the key to dismantling apartheid. All are South Africans, but they inhabit vastly different countries.
Thami is 17, somewhere between boyhood and manhood, brimming with intelligence and torn between wanting to learn and wanting to lead his classmates in a boycott of the segregated school system. Isabel is a middle-class white girl, 18, confident and enthusiastic, who crosses the barrier between the white and black school systems to team with Thami in a national schools quiz under the guidance of a charismatic teacher.
Fifty-seven-year-old Mr. Myalatya, otherwise called Mr. M, is devoted to helping the country evolve out of apartheid more deliberately than his students, who chafe under the inequities. As the teenagers prepare for the contest, the ghetto where Thami and Mr. M. live is on the verge of exploding. A fragile three-way relationship develops but undergoes great stress as Thami gets sucked into political violence, the rising tensions mirrored in the strains between the two students despite their mutual affection. Meanwhile, Mr. M tries to bridge two worlds, which leads to fateful consequences.
Director Cheryl Collins relies on the power of Fugard's verbal imagery -- there is no set or special lighting -- staging the play not in the sizable Hallam Theatre, MET's usual home, but in a classroom amphitheater that is actually quite appropriate. Fugard uses the power of rational argument to make his points, and often has the characters explain their thoughts directly to the audience in long monologues. It is wordy and at times didactic, the dramatic intensity maintained primarily by the dynamic performances of Collins's cast.
Each actor creates a personal relationship with the audience. Stage and film actor Michael Anthony Williams brings brittle intensity to the role of the formal Mr. M, who grapples with his rage while trying to channel the same emotion in Thami away from violence. Raymond Jacquet successfully combines Thami's joy of learning and tentative willingness to explore biracial friendship with the agony of the pressure that ultimately causes him to turn his back on the teacher. Gwynn Valentine Fulcher is delightful as the sheltered, animated Isabel, radiating goodwill and then resigned sadness over Thami's evolution.
With the specifics of this situation now gone, the value of the play lies less in Fugard's wordy arguments against formal oppression than in smaller moments that transcend that time and place. For instance, when Thami, whose mother works as a domestic, asks Isabel what she had for breakfast and she begins her response with an innocent, sunny smile and the words, "Auntie, our maid, placed before me," the look on Jacquet's face teaches more than mere words could ever convey.
"My Children, My Africa" will be performed through Feb. 23 by Metropolitan Ebony Theatre at the Rennie Forum of Prince George's Community College, 301 Largo Rd., Largo. Performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 2:30. For tickets or information, call 301-322-0444.