- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2007

Studio Theatre kicks off its 30th-anniversary season with an involving look at South Africa during the time of apartheid in Athol Fugard’s “My Children! My Africa!”

The production, directed by Serge Seiden, is notable more for the acting — including a breakout performance by Yaegel T. Welsch, a young newcomer making his area debut — than for an innovative approach to the 1989 play, as the production is earnestly straightforward almost to a fault. Mr. Seiden also wrings every bit of sentimentality out of the work rather than playing against it.

Set in 1984, when anti-apartheid protests and sanctions ran bloody and fierce, “My Children! My Africa!” telescopes the country’s far-reaching political and cultural turmoil down to an intense philosophical conflict between a teacher and two bright students.

A teacher in a small black township, Mr. M (James Brown-Orleans) is passionate about books and education, conservative and traditional in his outlook. He believes change comes about slowly, through thought, continual discourse and debate.

Mr. Fugard has said in interviews that Mr. M is one of his most autobiographical characters, and he pours his love of words and written language into the portrait, showing the refined beauty of the life of the mind.

His prodigy, a scary-smart teenager named Thami Mbikwana (Mr. Welsch), feels otherwise. Thami itches to cast aside his anthologies and essay books to join the boycotts — and will resort to bloodshed, if necessary. Mr. M wants him to stay the course, participating in an interschool literature contest with teammate Isabel (Veronica del Cerro), an idealistic white girl from a privileged background whose eyes have been opened through her visits to the township.

This classic struggle between contemplation and action is made urgent by the backdrop of the anti-apartheid movement. Mr. M may represent the past and a romantic view of Africa, but even he cannot bury himself in books.

Ultimately, he must take a stand. Thami, on the other hand, embodies a hopeful future for his country and is willing to take violent, impetuous risks to bring about change. Isabel is somewhere in the middle, eager to embrace a new era of racial and social equality but at the same time keenly aware of the privileges her skin color and colonial heritage have afforded her.

“My Children! My Africa!” takes a discreet, classical approach to revolution, and anything remotely graphic — save for a burst of curse words and a brief scuffle — is relegated to offstage. The firepower and brutality are expressed through language, with the characters cutting down each other with exquisitely chosen words.

The debates and the literary volleys tossed between Thami and Isabel generate white-hot heat as the pair discover the vaguely flirty, cutthroat thrill of intellectual laceration.

The big showdown naturally occurs between teacher and pupil as Thami urgently tries to persuade Mr. M to back down, if only to save his hide, while Mr. M resolutely — perhaps insanely — sticks to his argument. A brass school bell, usually a benign symbol of the classroom, has never looked as menacing and incendiary as in this scene.

Mr. Brown-Orleans brings the same astonishing range and contained fury to the role of Mr. M that he brought to Studio before in “Master Harold and the Boys” and “Two Trains Running.”

Miss del Cerro conveys such immediacy and unflagging optimism as Isabel that you can forgive her character for being such a wide-eyed symbol of colonialism. What makes this production a must-see is Mr. Welch’s Thami, a young man whose body and mind battle each other for domination. Mr. Welch is excitable as the fiery budding revolutionary, but watching his brain at work is what gives his character eloquence.

“My Children! My Africa!” tells us nothing new about apartheid, concentrating instead on the timeless story of how friendships often shift and break apart when people are forced to choose sides.

***

WHAT: “My Children! My Africa!” by Athol Fugard

WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW, Washington

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 7 p.m. Sundays Through Oct. 14.

TICKETS: $27 to $55

PHONE: 202/332-3300

WEB SITE: www.studio theatre.org MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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