Athol Fugard’s Powerful Apartheid-Era Play Resonates Today
Kicking off the Studio Theatre’s 30th anniversary season, “My Children! My Africa!” is a powerful reflection on apartheid-era South Africa with poignant lessons that still resonate today. Athol Fugard’s beautifully written play, set in 1984 after decades of entrenched apartheid, tells the story of three lives forever intertwined by the soul-sapping racism of a small town on the cape of South Africa.
Deftly directed by Studio Theatre veteran Serge Seiden, “My Children!” pops and percolates from the very outset, as Isabel (Veronica del Cerro), an affluent and vivacious white girl, and Thami (Yaegel Welch), a self-confident but poor black boy, spar in an interscholastic debate.
James Brown-Orleans, on a break from “The Lion King” on Broadway, plays Mr. Myalatya, or Mr. M, a dedicated and dynamic teacher at a black, underprivileged high school who moderates the debate. As Isabel and Thami argue spiritedly about the merits of equal rights for women in education (Isabel wins the debate), it becomes clear that these bright young pupils are destined to become friends—and ultimately symbols of the very oppression that tore South Africa apart.
Brown-Orleans, oozing sincerity and a pleasant charisma as Mr. M, enjoys the spirited exchange so much that when he receives an invitation to send two students to a literary competition, he devises a plan to team these two unlikely allies from different sides of the tracks. Their preparation for competition serves as a vehicle to reveal the politics and rage of apartheid-era South Africa.
Mr. M’s love of teaching is palpable, but he’s forced to do it in a shoddy, ramshackle school while Isabel and her friends enjoy gleaming classrooms and brand-new books. Isabel shows up for the literary competition practices wearing a smart school uniform. She plays field hockey with her classmates when not studying. Thami’s sweater, meanwhile, is threadbare and as we soon learn, he spends his time outside the classroom seething with rage and learning to be a revolutionary.
Once an eager and excellent student, Thami becomes less enthusiastic about school as he wises up to his plight and decides that going along to get along will never result in change. During this, his senior year in high school, he is anxious to graduate and leave his town behind.
Welch is a strong young actor whose facial expressions do as much to convey Thami’s angst as do his words, which become increasingly incendiary as the play progresses, especially during a monologue at the end of the first act when he unleashes the fiery rage that has been building in his soul. “There are days when my eyesight seems more like a curse than a blessing,” he exclaims at witnessing the injustice all around him.
In this challenging role, Welch manages to temper a character whose emotions could fly right out of control. Instead, he brings a slow, simmering anger to the stage and makes the audience feel his frustration instead of just watching it.
In the second act, Thami confronts Mr. M, who despite his own despair over the racist conditions of his town, has decided not to rock the boat. Mr. M has seen what happens to those who do and in one heartbreaking sequence, he describes the desperation he once felt watching unsuspecting young people meet a violent fate. Now, he seeks solace in books and the classroom, urging his students to do the same.
But Thami has had enough of that way of thinking. He’s ready to supplant mere words of dissatisfaction with action, even if it means burning, looting and destroying things to get his point across. The differing viewpoints between Thami and Mr. M also reflect the play’s multilayered themes of young versus old, tradition versus revolution.
As Veronica, del Cerro brings an engaging altruism to this dynamic. During a monologue, she laments the injustice she witnesses as she struggles to understand why she and her other well-meaning friends are scorned by black people who resent their attempts at charity. But as the play matures, so does she. Veronica at one point dissolves into tears as she watches Thami and Mr. M wage verbal war. She stalks off stage in a fit of frustrated profanity as she realizes the futility of her efforts to mend a bond between teacher and student that frays right before her horrified eyes.
It is during one of these exchanges that Thami mocks Mr. M as old and out of touch, deriding the meaningless of words. The reproach is too much for an anguished Mr. M to take. “Don’t scorn words,” he spits back in rage. “Words are sacred. Without words, man cannot think!”
Clearly, Fugard also recognized the power of words, as evidenced by the powerful monologues throughout this work. Originally premiering in 1989, “My Children! My Africa!” may be from another time and place, but as the story’s revolutionary passions rise, the audience can easily relate to its universal themes of racial conflict, tolerance, injustice, anger and political awakening that echo around the world today. After all, those of us who live in the world’s most powerful city don’t have to look far—perhaps just across a river—to see that not all is created equal here, either.
My Children! My Africa! through Oct. 14 Studio Theatre 1501 14th St., NW. Tickets are to For more information, please call (202) 332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org.
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.