The Austin Chronicle


My Children! My Africa!: Schoolbells in the Revolution

June 11, 1999, Arts

Zachary Scott Theatre Center Whisenhunt Arena Stage,
through June 27

Running time: 2 hrs, 10 min

Athol Fugard penned My Children! My Africa! during an escalation of violent interaction between two worlds: the world of dominant white South Africans to which he belonged and the world of apartheid-hammered black South Africans. This period of renewed assault against apartheid would lead to the political and social empowerment of the black majority of that troubled nation.

Fugard's play, co-produced by First Stage Productions and Zachary Scott Theatre Center at the Whisenhunt Arena Stage, straddles that era of change as tradition and revolution collide, as black South Africa begins to win its struggle for freedom. At the center of this conflict is a basic question: Have the ideas of language and education any place in the struggle to overthrow entrenched powers when language and education are rooted so firmly in the institutionalized racism that keeps the black majority from sharing that power? Can even cherished ideas resist festering in the face of a just demand for change?

Thami Mbikwan, a black teenager from the impoverished shanty village on the outskirts of town thinks not. A brilliant student and prized pupil, Thami as a young boy dreamed of using the education he loves to become a doctor (joking how he would treat his people for free, while charging whites for his care). Now the impending revolution has him revising his place in world-shattering events.

Isabel Dyson, a middle-class white girl, daughter to the local pharmacist, has interacted with blacks all her life, albeit as master to their servant -- though she may not be quite prepared to understand this dynamic. She believes in the power of education, of language, to help make change smooth, nonviolent. Between the two students is Thami's teacher, Mr. M (Anela Myalatya), a man with a beautiful life's-calling to teach, who sees in Thami the hope of a peaceful transition into a brighter future, until Thami begins to move from the confines of the classroom to the infinite treachery of a world of cadres, insurgency, and revolutionary tactics.

The two students are brought together by Mr. M to participate in an English language competition and spend their time, under his tutelage, learning everything about prose and poetry. As they consider the classic canon, the revolution insinuates itself into the protective shell of Mr. M's one-room schoolhouse.

Fugard makes no judgments about his characters, allowing them to make their own choices -- and experience the consequences of these choices -- in a neatly contrived series of scenes, monologues, and duets. All three characters are ebullient, vivid, fully wrought. And each is fleshed out by actors not only up to the challenges of the material, but seemingly equal in their own ebullience and vitality. Mark Alexander Banks plays Thami with earnestness and a dry wit. When he begins to metamorphose from eager student to unblinkered revolutionary, Banks maintains Thami's humanity, so necessary to keep the audience from leaping to easy conclusions. Helen Merino makes an energetic, proud, and thoroughly likable Isabel. An optimist with streaks of outrageous happiness, Merino is equally strong when tackling the play's serious matters. Theo Jarvis completes the outstanding trio as teacher Mr. M. Levelheaded, yet as proud as the others, Jarvis' teacher appeals for reason, but, rooted in the tradition of the past, even his clanging schoolbell won't be heard over the shouts of revolution. Jarvis becomes a force at play's end, driving it toward the inevitable with tragic clarity.

This co-production seems to have the best of all worlds: Zachary Scott's production savvy, First Stage's political awareness, and Ann Ciccolella's strong direction, but the production is short of perfect. Ciccolella's directorial hand is sure -- especially with the performances she has won from her cast -- but sometimes too obvious in so naturalistic a production: The use of audience space for monologues is effective when fresh, but too many scenes get played behind one's back; Ciccolella might reconsider the lighting during the final duet, an unnecessary image of a band of light across the center of the stage, so frought with meaning, but meaning what? Details interfere with expectations: Thami's costumes indicate his poverty with certainty, except for his brand-new Converse high-tops; Isabel plays field hockey, but wields an American ice hockey stick, for heaven's sake! These may sound more like quibbles than criticism, but one expects that these two longstanding production companies well-versed in traditional theatrical forms could have righted these distractions.

With last weekend's elections in South Africa affirming the continued move away from the necessity of revolution, My Children! My Africa! is almost a museum piece. Except that the play asks such a fundamental question: Can one cling to an idea so long that it becomes a tool of oppression? --Robi Polgar


Austin Museum of Art -- Downtown
Through June 13


Alan Rath, an M.I.T.-trained engineer turned artist, is part of an avant-garde blurring distinctions between art and science. "Robotics," his exhibit currently showing at the Austin Museum of Art, is a living garden of sculpted electronica in which to contemplate variations on the human/machine binary. Robots move and interact like animals, speaker cones pulse and breathe like future-fauna while numbers flash on giant LEDs and little electronic melodies emanate from parts unseen. Humanness, on the other hand, is isolated and encoded as television images of fingers, mouths, eyes -- thus trapping us, merging us with the machine, but also representing us -- as art.

What's surprising is the palpable air of retro: Though sections of the exhibit are interactive (robots react to one another or to viewers), there is an anachronistic charm about the objects, suggesting the mechanical past of the assembly line as much as the digital future. Sometimes this spirit is comic -- as in the rubber wheels, aluminum arms, and exposed insides of Rover, which looks like an erector-set lunar lander built by "The Science Guy." Sometimes the feeling is darker, as with the grinding, growing mechanical appendages of the figures in Friends and Acquaintances.

Rath is playing with atoms and bits, but also with style: The various machines are visually and conceptually engaging with deliberate, sensual surfaces. There is a beauty in the coherence and deliberate craft of "Robotics," in the dancing silver and bubbly handmade televisions with their yellow and green screens. This beauty doesn't have much in common with the apocalyptic overtones of other robotic experiments in contemporary art -- say, the gunpowder and techno-terror of San Francisco's Survival Research Labs. The clean, neutral surfaces of Rath's work are unsettling and provocative but not violent. Instead, his mechanical sculptures provoke questions -- what is "natural" and what is "artificial" -- urging us to reconsider the ways that we relate to machines. -- Ben Willcott


The Public Domain Theatre,
through June 12

Running time: 3 hrs, 45 min

Ehren Conner Christian's face is just unmistakable. When wounded, it scrunches up tight like a little bulldog -- nose wrinkled, brow deeply furrowed above squinty eyes, lips pursed tightly into a little "o." When shocked, the emotions spread to the outer rims of his round face, arching his eyebrows into his hairline, opening his mouth wide, sometimes to flash the white gleam of his teeth. This face is the most memorable image of Torch Song Trilogy. It reacts even more than the gesturing body, the deep, scratchy voice. You just can't forget that face.

The same could be said for Harvey Fierstein, whose Broadway play Torch Song Trilogy -- and the subsequent film version -- has become for some an anthem. It's understandable; Fierstein brought to the public a gay man who was fully fleshed out, fascinating, and dangerously human. In a time when homosexual characters were either invisible or two dimensions short of reality, Fierstein's Arnold was bitchy, hilarious, and proud. His gayness was not something to agonize over and definitely not something to be hidden -- Arnold wore his homosexuality like a badge of honor. But while Torch Song clearly depicts the particulars of being gay in a straight world (although, being set in the Seventies, there's nary a whisper of that dreaded four-letter disease), it is, more simply, the story of finding -- and maintaining -- meaningful connections.

When we first meet our narrator, Arnold, he is getting ready to go onstage. Fretting about his costume, mussing with his hair, reapplying his eyelash -- oh, did I mention he's a drag queen? Arnold makes his living suited up in satin fineries and wailing dear old torch songs -- those weepy ballads "to be miserable by." As he prepares, he speaks directly to the audience, recounting his difficulties in finding and maintaining that most slippery of possessions: love. On a stage in the background stands an elegant woman, Julie Slim, who sings the old classics in her smoky alto, providing the moody soundtrack to Arnold's sad, but often hilarious, tales. It is a strong opening scene, the two playing off each other emotionally and also comically. Director Kevin Remington sets up this kind of dynamic staging as we pass through each of the three pivotal phases in six years of Arnold's life: the affair with reluctant homosexual Ed; life with pretty boy Alan; and the dilemma about David, the young, gay delinquent Arnold adopts.

However, despite his fine directorial skills, Remington does a real disservice to the production by not recognizing the limitations of both his actors and audience. At almost four hours, the show becomes too much of a labor to enjoy (especially considering the heat in the Public Domain Theatre; half the audience members were fanning themselves). The performances are all serviceable, with standout turns from St. Edward's University student Stuart Bone as the sweetly naïve male model Alan and Sharon Elmore as Arnold's mother, a strong-willed, traditional woman unable to comprehend her son. As Arnold, Christian throws himself into the role, giving a heartfelt performance that never flags in energy. It's tough to take your eyes off him, but at times it also feels like too much. Or at least, after nearly four hours, it just gets exhausting to watch. Part of the blame can be placed on Fierstein's play, whose third act simply isn't as absorbing as its first two. And while I appreciate the craftsmanship of the directing and commend several of the performers, I can only recommend this Torch Song to the most diehard Fierstein fans. After three hours, my light just went out. --Sarah Hepola

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