"My Children! My Africa!" opened in December 1989, two months before Nelson Mandela was freed from prison. I remember marveling how Athol Fugard's deceptively simple three-character powerhouse had prepared us so directly for the complicated swell of idealism and factionalism ahead for oppressed South Africans, the ongoing rioting and paranoia and black-on-black violence in their squalid forced homelands.
After a few swift and remarkable decades, this snapshot of a moment before massive social change seems a bit like ancient history. As drama, however, this remains Fugard's toughest and most unflinchingly political play -- an intimate dissection of social upheaval that takes us by the hand and makes us part of the devastation that apartheid, even at its twilight, had on three bright, funny, fascinating people.
The grossly underrated "My Children!" which ran barely a month at the tiny New York Theater Workshop, has been given a second chance -- or, more accurately, we have -- as part of the Signature Theatre's Fugard season. Inevitably, the production feels less raw and immediate than Fugard's original staging. But director Ruben Santiago-Hudson brings enormous passion and tenderness, and a terrific cast, to what the playwright called his "literary manifesto" -- tragically celebrating the power of the word over brute force. The story is based on a news item about the murder of a teacher during a protest in the "location," a segregated slum outside a pretty white town. Mr. M (James A. Williams) is an aging black teacher who believes his prize student (Stephen Tyrone Williams) will use his education to better his people -- to feed the "dangerous, hungry beast" of hope "prowling around inside." Mr. M has invited a plucky senior (Allie Gallerani) from a posh white school for a debate competition.
The evening, set plainly against a corrugated tin wall and barbed wire, is divided into scenes and monologues, wrenching soliloquies that never feel like lectures but are always informative. Even the debate is an itchy subject: Is feminism a white foreign privilege that plunders tribal traditions? Fugard takes us back to the private place in the mind where education begins, where a person first makes the connection between learning and freedom. Haunting bits of scat singing by Bobby McFerrin establish both ancient beauty and restlessness. But words are the real music here.
WHAT "My Children! My Africa!"
WHERE Pershing Square Theatre Center, 480 W. 42nd St.
INFO $25; 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org
BOTTOM LINE Intimate yet unflinching political drama