Isabel Dyson is a young white girl who once felt "very virtuous about our pioneering mission." Thami Mbikwana is a 17-Year-old Black man who tells her in exasperation, "going to school doesn't mean the same to us as it does to you." Anela Myalatya is a Black teacher in a ghetto school who has "seen too much of it, wasted chances, wasted people." My Children My Africa! is about a country that could ours, about a country inhabited by lunacy but home to people who unrelentingly search for "opportunity to fight the lunacy."
Athol Fugard has set My Children! My Africa! in Camdeboo, South Africa in the autumn of 1985, and the different ways his three characters choose to fight the lunacy are freighted with historical poignancy. "Mr. M" (Allen Oliver) wants sustained change through education and discipline, but his protege Thami (Donald Swaby) wants direct action, revolutionary action. Isabel (Eliza Gagnon) is afraid that, in the upheaval she knows is necessary for change, Thami will dismiss their friendship as "an old-fashioned idea."
It is a testament to the consistently powerful performances that our alliances change throughout the play; that we are torn in our adjudication of right and wrong: urgency to stop thinking and act in the face of impending danger is so palpable. Oliver is certainly the most masterful of the three, his sophistication as an actor well-demonstrated by the transformation of ideology and emotion that "Mr. M" undergoes, Swaby's Thami is magnetic in his development from polite and amiable debate to clenched-fisted crescendoes, as he turns on "Mr. M": "Yours were the lessons in whispering, there are men who are teaching us to shout." Gagnon is perhaps a little old for the role of Isabel Dyson, but her believability as a buoyant sharp-tongued hockey-playing, poetry-quoting high school girl renders that criticism trivial.
Fugard's play was originally staged in this country in New York in 1989, and it's disappointing it didn't come to Boston earlier. But it's found in the New Repertory Theatre a production company that can do it justice. Joanna Zazofsky's direction is marred only by the excursions of the actors onto the floor in front of the first row, which ion a theater this crowded, is probably better avoided. Eric Levenson's projection screens are movingly utilized to present a photo montage of the African countryside and the life of the town-ship. This is a play that won't take apologies like Isabel's of "white selfish ignorance" as any excuse; it demands unmitigated attention, allegiance and hope.