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Barely Alive 

How to make a funny optimist sound boring

Wednesday, Nov 19 2003
Athol Fugard is one of the reasons I became a theater critic. Getting to see a play by him once in a while -- to balance the lousy shows -- has always struck me as a pretty good deal. Fugard grew up in the shadow of a great generation of American playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill, and he was forced by circumstance to write about the rotten politics of his home nation, South Africa. He ranks with dour old Solzhenitsyn as a dissenter from brutal state power, yet his plays are shot with an almost American lightness and optimism. To me, that's amazing. For the simple achievement of maintaining his sense of humor during the darkest years of apartheid, I think Fugard deserved the Nobel Prize in literature ahead of his compatriot J.M. Coetzee (who got it this year) -- but then, I'm not on the Nobel Committee.

Humor, though, is missing from the Multi Ethnic Theater production of Fugard's two early-'70s plays, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and The Island. Each script is great on its own. Each takes about 90 minutes to perform. Each serves as a solid evening of theater. But when you put them together, as a pair of "one-acts," and let perfectly good actors walk through their wayward plots for a total of three hours without engaging the audience's sense of humor, you commit what for me is an unforgivable crime: You make Fugard boring.

Sizwe Bansi deals with a South African man who ruins his prospects for a job -- any job -- by failing to report by a certain date, in a certain town, for a stamp in his passbook. (The apartheid-era government controlled black people's movements by issuing passbooks containing a photograph, work permits, visalike stamps, etc.) Bansi can't return to his wife and kids without facing jail. One night, on a drunk with his friend Buntu, he finds the corpse of another man in an alley. The corpse has a passbook with full work permits. Buntu encourages Bansi to steal the book and change his identity. They plant Bansi's passbook on the corpse, reinventing Bansi as a new and slightly freer man called Robert Zwelinzima. To complete this trick, though, Bansi needs a new head shot, so he visits a quirky black photographer named Styles. The audience has already learned about Styles in a long monologue at the start of the play. For 20 minutes or so, Styles has told us amusing stories about his days in a Ford factory, before he set up his photography studio and gained a measure of dignity and independence.

Sizwe Bansi, then, swerves and twists: It's neither taut nor well-made, like Fugard's great scripts from the 1980s. The reason for its disorganization is that Fugard improvised the show with two actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. To carry the audience the play needs push, energy, humor, and charm from the actors -- not to mention inspiration from the director -- and this production has very little of any of them. It's not the actors' fault: Vernon Medearis as Styles, David Stewart as Bansi, and Fred Pitts as Buntu all do credible work. There's just no urgency. Director Lewis Campbell seems more interested in his vague political idea (that the U.S. under the Patriot Act might become like apartheid South Africa) than in delivering a terrific performance.

Still, Sizwe Bansi by itself would make a decent evening out. But Campbell has piled on another wandering one-act, The Island, about two political prisoners on South Africa's notorious Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was held) who stage a humorous, bare-bones version of Antigone. Fugard, Kani, and Ntshona improvised The Island the year after they did Sizwe Bansi, and in many ways it's a greater play; Antigone's ancient protest parallels the anti-state politics of the prisoners ("Winston" and "John"), with a ferocious eloquence. But here's the thing: When it premiered in 1973, The Island had not been committed to paper. Performing the show was risky enough; possessing a script was asking for jail time. So Fugard and his actors memorized the play -- just as Solzhenitsyn had to do with poetry and scripts he composed in the Soviet gulag. Inevitably, the play sprawls, and mounting a slow Island right after a slow Sizwe Bansi is simply lethal. David Stewart puts in a strenuous, heroic effort as John, but Myers Clark as Winston struggles for his accent. The overall effect is not funny so much as tedious.

The only person in the U.S. who may be a greater Fugard fan than I am is August Wilson, who started his cycle of African-American history plays after seeing Sizwe Bansi in Pittsburgh almost 30 years ago. Fugard is worth seeing in almost any state of disrepair. But for God's sake, don't blame him if you're bored.


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