Sad to say, “My Children! My Africa!” doesn’t feel the least bit dated in Signature’s stirring revival production helmed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Athol Fugard’s powerful agit-prop drama, about the philosophical and generational divide between an idealistic teacher and his politicized students, had the shock of immediacy in 1989, when South Africa was still under the yoke of apartheid. But the scribe’s keening lament for innocence lost and hope betrayed still delivers a forceful message to a modern world in which people are still fighting the same battles.
Anela Myalatya, a schoolteacher fondly known as Mr. M and superbly played by James A. Williams, has selflessly dedicated his life to the students who live in his poor black township in Eastern Cape Karoo. The teacher is a kind man, an orderly man, and although a strict disciplinarian, a man who believes passionately in his mission to teach students to think independently and to educate them in the language skills they need to express those thoughts — character traits smartly reinforced by costumer Karen Perry’s precise wardrobe choices.
Mr. M’s dedication is rewarded when he successfully organizes a debate team represented by the top student in his humble village school and a privileged white girl who attends the fancy school in town. The dynamic between intellectual equals Thami Mbikwana (Stephen Tyrone Williams) and Isabel Dyson (Allie Gallerani) is an exciting one, well dramatized in their lively debates on topics ranging from the equality of the sexes to the lives and literary output of the English Romantic poets.
But Fugard is not one to be rushed, and the early classroom scenes between these two bright kids are overlong and overdone, forcing the thesps to take youthful innocence and intellectual enthusiasm beyond their natural comfort level. But they both recover, and indeed distinguish themselves, once their debates turn into serious political arguments.
Gallerani is most appealing when Isabel curbs her girlish enthusiasms and begins to grasp the inherent inequality of her privileged life and Thami’s disadvantaged background. Williams is never less than a strong presence from the moment he comes onstage, but he’s positively riveting in a beautiful — and painful — soliloquy in which Thami reveals the secret thoughts and buried feelings that have transformed him from a scholar into a fighter.
But the tragic figure here is Mr. M, who, for all his devotion to the enlightened teachings of Confucius, is blind to the winds of revolution gathering force in the black townships; indeed, in his own village and his own school. Because the teacher’s entire belief system is based on the liberating force of language, he is devastated to discover that words have lost their power with the young rebels who have turned to violence.
Williams takes grave emotional command over the heartbreaking scene in which the violence reaches the door of the school. Rendered virtually speechless, the teacher can only reach for the school bell, ringing it in one last desperate attempt to call his students in from the streets and into the safety of their school. It’s a moving moment, sensitively directed and beautifully performed, and a sad reflection of the shock of every idealistic thinker forced to acknowledge the futility of words.