Penelope Cruz

Athol Fugard's "My Children! My Africa!" premiered in 1989 while South Africa was still under apartheid. It seems to have become a history play, but as it gathers momentum -- notably so under Blanka Zizka's splendid direction -- Fugard's passionate plea for humanism and his rejection of polemics provide a sadly eternal relevance.

Athol Fugard’s “My Children! My Africa!” premiered in 1989 while South Africa was still under apartheid. It seems to have become a history play, but as it gathers momentum — notably so under Blanka Zizka’s splendid direction — Fugard’s passionate plea for humanism and his rejection of polemics provide a sadly eternal relevance. Three profoundly moving performances of extraordinary modesty and restraint make this revival a surprisingly significant one.

The play begins with a debate between Isabel (Megan Heimbecker), a girl from a posh white school, and Thami (Yaegel Welch), a black boy from the Location, under the auspices of dedicated teacher Mr. M (Glynn Turman). The debate is the play’s central motif; the characters argue ideals and political positions with each other, then step forward and present their positions to us.

The action is all in the talk. Fugard believes deeply in the power of language and the need for education to teach people how to use it: the difference between the official white newspaper lingo discussing “the Unrest” and the Township calling the revolution “the Beginning.” The play’s language is itself rich and eloquent, only rarely sermonizing.

But the debate is not just between the obvious: black and white, powerful and powerless, privileged and impoverished. It’s also between old and young, tradition and revolution, male and female, private and public, talk and action. Fugard makes us see how hard it is to take easy sides, not only intellectually but emotionally.

“My Children! My Africa!” gives us a rare thing: All its characters are kind, smart and admirable, and each wins our affection and our allegiance.

The performances could not be stronger, clearer or more moving. The tricky accents — each appropriately different — sound both authentic and intelligible. As Mr. M., Turman (Travis in the original production of “A Raisin in the Sun” and a winner of the NAACP Lifetime Achievement Award for Theater) subtly shades his performance from the joyful but decorous enthusiasm of act one to his ravaging despair of the end of act two. “Come to school! Come to school,” he calls, ringing his big bell. “Before they kill you all, come to school.”

Heimbecker (a serious newcomer) gives us an Isabel initially eager, fresh-faced and clever; we watch her acquire depth and passion as she gains understanding of the world outside.

As Thami, Welch is intensely earnest, able to convey the paradoxical combination of rationality and rage, resisting flash in a role that could easily and mistakenly go over the top.

This play must have been terrifying and electrifying when first performed in Johannesburg. Watching it now and here, “My Children! My Africa!” does what a great history play must do: Make us feel what it was like to be then and there, to be them.

Of course, the real power of a history play is to make us realize that then is now and them is us. Near the end of the play, Mr. M. asks, “What is wrong with this world that it wants to waste you all like that … my children … my Africa!” That line resonates in any direction one’s mind takes.

My Children! My Africa!

Wilma Theater, Philadelphia; 302 seats; $50 top

Production

A Wilma Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Athol Fugard. Directed by Blanka Zizka.

Creative

Sets, Matt Saunders, costumes; Millie Hiibel CQ; lighting, John Stephen Hoey; sound, Bill Moriarty; dialect coach, Stanton Davis; production stage manager, Patreshettarlini Adams. Opened, reviewed Dec. 13, 2006. Runs through Jan. 7. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

Mr. M. - Glynn Turman Isabel Dyson - Meghan Heimbecker Thami Mbikwana - Yaegel Welch
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