Sunday, February 1, 2004

'My Children' stumbles over crucial character


Theater review

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

January 2004 has to be the worst month of theater openings Cincinnati has seen in years, and am I glad to see the back of it.

Know Theatre Tribe's My Children! My Africa!, which opened Friday, is the kind of show that makes you ache because a fatal casting choice manages to bring down an otherwise standout entry on the small theater scene.

South African playwright Athol Fugard breaks his heart over apartheid in My Children!, and, as always, he is both poetic and political.

The title is the play: set in a classroom, a caring if uncompromising teacher has the bright idea of bridging the growing unrest between the segregated native black Africans and rich white Afrikaners by teaming two exceptionally bright students for a competition. A win would probably assure a scholarship for the black student and perhaps establish his future.

With Reggie Willis, one of the best players on the small theater scene as teacher Mr. M, Anne Valauri a real find as sensitive Isabel and director Michael Burnham infusing the show with energy and some bold strokes for staging, this show starts on a high.

Bare bones set

My Children! My Africa! is about as close to site specific theater as Cincinnati gets. Gabriel's Corner is bare bones at the best of times. Rather than attempt to disguise that, Burnham uses it as the perfect stand-in for a bleak and dingy classroom in a poor school in the scarily named "Location," where blacks live separately from the whites in town.

Burnham has arranged the playing space as much like a poor school's lecture room as he can, with cafeteria tables in the first row of the audience. The actors use aisle ways between the seating and he keeps the lights on. We are in that classroom with this tragedy in the making.

And a tragedy it is, because Thami (Charles Marshall), Mr. M's star pupil, has fallen out of love with learning and into a passion for rebellion. He's joined a revolution whose comrades are every bit as brutally intransigent as the controlling whites.

So even as Fugard shows us the glory of literature, as two bright kids play one-upsmanship in matters of Yeats and Coleridge, Confucius-quoting Mr. M ponders hope, "as dangerous as hate and despair if it ever gets inside black skin."

There are giant questions in Fugard's simple title: Whose Africa is it? Is it better to take action? Better to wait? Which is more powerful, persuasive words or a car bomb? One person's right is another person's wrong. How does one find solutions to what seem like insuperable problems and what will happen to a generation of children?

Lessons for students

My Children! My Africa! is a play every high school and college age student in Cincinnati should know, because it speaks so eloquently to our world today.

But there's no getting around the fact that Charles Marshall is nothing more or less than awful in the pivotal role of Thami. (Burnham's work is terrific but for this one vital piece of casting.)

Marshall intermittently connects with his character, never for more than one or two minutes at a time, but otherwise is a block of wood where a great character should be making our hearts bleed. Compounding the problem, he's unintelligible much of the time. He doesn't understand or embrace Fugard's all-important language.

Know Tribe's My Children! My Africa! makes your heart bleed, for what should have been.

My Children! My Africa!, through Feb. 14, Know Theatre Tribe, Gabriel's Corner, Sycamore at Liberty. 300-5669.

E-mail jdemaline@enquirer.com




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