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My Children! My Africa!: Two Students, One Teacher

rock that was thrown in protest and later used as memorial

My Children! My Africa! Is the title of Athol Fugard's play of the stubborn meeting of entrenched reform politics with the newer passion of direct action. The play is set in a school room in segregated South African town near the end of Apartheid.  My Children! My Africa! is also the anguished, defeated cry of Mr. M, a man who's dedicated his life to teaching his African students.

It was IU Theatre grad student Tara Chiusano who approached IU faculty member Murray McGibbon and proposed the production. She is an IU Theatre and IU Summer theatre veteran. She's played Matt Groening's Lisa Simpson, Shakespeare's Puck and lots of roles in between. Chiusano Played King Lear's daughter Cordelia in McGibbon's production last spring.

Director McGibbon is no stranger to the works of Athol Fugard. He directed Master Harold …and the boys for IU in a potent production in 2005. However, he was reluctant. As he has said, "My Children! My Africa! was a play that I admired, but hadn't loved." He also worried about finding an actor to play the authoritarian and conservative teacher Mr. M. With the happy agreement of fellow faculty member Ansley Valentine to fill the role, McGibbon confesses to having become "besotted with the play."

Valentine is a recent addition to the faculty of the IU Department of Theatre, Drama and Contemporary Dance with an impressive portfolio of acting, directing and administering in the arts. Long time IUI theatre fans may remember that he played the conniving young man in an IU production of Six Degrees of Separation.

With Valentine cast as the teacher and Chiusano playing Isabel, a white student in the town, the search began for an African American actor to play Mr. M.'s star pupil Thami. Filling the part is IU alum: actor, producer and composer Yusuf Agunbiade. At IU he appeared in DontrellI… and In the Red and Brown Water. As a musician Agunbiade currently has two self-produced albums to his credit.

My Children! My Africa begins as Isabel from an all-white school visits Mr. M.'s classroom for a debate with Thami. It's a spirited one with Thami taking a position that very much relegates women to the home and garden and Isabel advocating a more progression position. The two talk, and though there's always a space between them form a friendship.

Their friendship grows as Mr. M. and Isabel's teacher propose that the two compete as a team in a literature competition. In a nicely staged scene an angry Isabel comes into the classroom with her field hockey stick. She's angry about losing and still mulling over the defeat. An exuberant Thami comes in from soccer game. His team also lost, but he's happy about the game and the way that his team mates played. The atmosphere lightens even more as Mr. M has them compete on English Literature facts while he chalks up their scores.

The two become closer. Isabel even invites Thami and Mr. M to her home for tea. The only black people who have ever been in Isabel's home are the cook and the delivery man. Thami is hesitant despite Mr. M's dictatorial demand and only consents when Isabel asks him.  As they work together Isabel learns more about the community where these people and Thami come from. She is more and more appalled and a bit guilty, but still clings to the idea that their friendship is transcendent.

Both their friendship and Mr. M's authoritarian approach break down in the face of a general strike that includes the students. Thami is in the streets doing what he thinks he must and what he feels is right. Mr. M following his own dictates gives information to the police about the student leaders. Thami seeks to protect him, but fails.

In the final scenes of My Children! My Africa! Thami is leaving to join the fight in the north. Mr. M is gone and Isabel is looking for some sort of comfort. In sad tear stained moment she follows Thami's suggestion, placing one of the rocks that the demonstrators threw at the spot where the ten year old Mr. M dedicated his life to being a teacher.

Fugard's play leans heavily on the actors. There are long solo scenes for all three. Monologues, that though well written and insightful are a bit of a tight rope. It's good to be able to say that all three of the actors handle their parts well when they are by themselves and when they are together. Director McGibbon and the skilled cast do a fine job. The opening night audience gave them a well deserved standing ovation.

Presto Theatre International debut production of the new interdisciplinary arts group Art of Africa's moving production of Athol Fugard's My Children! My Africa!  Directed by Murray McGibbon plays April 27-30 in the Rose Firebay of the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center.

At the theatre for you, I'm George Walker

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