Reviewed by Kathleen Kirby
My Children! My Africa! launched the New Year Friday as the University of Michigan-Flint Department of Theatre and Dance presented Athol Fugard’s stunningly moving story about the violence that raged in South Africa in the mid-eighties. It features a mere three players, but the impact of this trio is immense and amazing.
Set in the fall of 1984 in a small town, the setting is the school. Classroom One is how characters refer this venue overseen by a venerable teacher known as Mr. M. In this role Jason Briggs brings strength, kindness, understanding, and an amazing intensity as he strives to reach his students. His character is a tribute to all teachers who deal with strife in the lives of their pupils and go the extra mile to both keep them safe and at the same time infuse a sense of intelligent comprehension that will allow them to be a positive force.
Two students open the play with a clash of beliefs, ideas and tempers as they discuss a debate topic. What is uniquely disquieting about these two is their differences. They are of different races, genders, social backgrounds and schools.
Thami is a student in Mr. M’s classroom. Edward Giovanni Moore III brings an endearing quality to this role. He clearly portrays Thami’s intelligence and love of learning even as his slide toward a darker environment brewing in the town begins. He is also obviously Mr. M’s protégé, a role he enjoys but resents as well.
Isabel is a student from a white, all-girls school. Ava Pietras couldn’t be more different from Thami and yet she manages to ease into the atmosphere of this very different classroom and to actually enjoy the fun and freedom she senses exuding from Mr. M. She and Thami respond enthusiastically to Mr. M’s idea to place them together as a debating team and grow to admire and understand each other as they move toward the contest.
The first act is sweet and enjoyable, even comical at times with the relationships developing so well between these divergent three. But there is a storm brewing outside the classroom and it will eventually take over and destroy most of what could have been.
We must congratulate all three of these performers and their dialect coaches for the marvelous diction and assimilation of the South African speech patterns. Even with this so well in place, we were able to understand and comprehend everything said. This is an especially grand achievement given the long speeches often delivered as each character reminisces and/or explains their life experiences and struggles.
Director Janet Haley’s coordination of this piece is to be congratulated. We were not only struck by the integrity and strength of the players, but the line of sand and rock downstage that allowed a change of venue is very clever. And the sound is masterful with only slight street noises at first that eventually explode into the violence that Mr. M has been trying to keep Thami away from all along.
Based on a true story that the Fugard read in a newspaper during these terrible times, this story doesn’t end as happily as we’d wish. Still, it is a riveting and impeccable production as well as a stirring tribute to all dedicated teaching professionals.
My Children! My Africa! continues today 2:00 pm and February 1 & 2 at 7:30 pm and February 3 at 2:00 pm. For tickets contact online at umflint.edu/theatredance or phone 810-237-1530.