There are so many way to demand justice. In 1973 South Africans Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona found their voices to take on South Africa’s apartheid through the words of and connections to the Ancient World of the Greeks and Antigone. Antigone was the sister who stood against the State and King Creon. She buried her brother who had been deemed a traitor and under law should have been left to rot for all to see. She pleaded guilty to the act but gave an impassioned defense of her act against the State.
Together Fugard, Kani and Ntshona devised a play, The Island, that was a bold cry against the all-powerful South African regime at the time. The play remains no less stirring and provoking forty years later.The MetroStage production is a coil of energy as Doug Brown (as Winston) and Michael Anthony Williams (as John) under the well-paced, out-to-sting, direction of Thomas W. Jones II.
With Brown and Williams’ performances, The Island succeeds admirably as theatrical sedition. Their acting simmers into a boil, not so much of loud shouts, but of carefully chosen and modulated words that become sharp darts reaching their targets; a fictional all-powerful State that was availing itself of any means necessary to suppress dissent and majority rule.
The Island is an apartheid-era “play-within-in-a play” inspired by true events. Its fictional setting of an unnamed island is based upon the notorious Robben Island, where 1993 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nelson Mandela spent many a year in jail before he was set freed. With an evocative minimalist set devised by Betsy Muller, mood-haunting projections from Robbie Hayes, shadowy lighting design from Alexander Keen and clinking sound design and preshow music from Aaron Fensterheim, we need only a speck of imagination to find ourselves gazing inside the confined spaces that Fugard, Kani and Ntshona created.
We first meet John and Winston performing back-breaking work; shoveling sand and stones over and over and over and over. They wear khaki shirts and shorts, with not much in the way of shoes (Frank Labovitz is costume designer). There is no end in sight for the exhausting work. It all seems so futile. We come to understand they are obedient to unseen powerful guards; one known as Hodoshe. John and Winston return to their cell after they have been shackled together and beaten (all with sounds and images we will come to know well). Back in their cell they seethe at their treatment while tending to each other’s wounds.
The younger, passionately political John has an idea of how to get back at Hodoshe; not with fists or weapons but by performing their own version of Antigone for an upcoming prison event. They will perform Antigone in a way that other inmates and the guards can take to heart. At first the older, seemingly less political Winston is not into it. He doesn’t want to play the female lead role to be laughed at. He tries to pull out of playing the female character Antigone. But John explains:
“When you get in front of them, sure they’ll laugh…Nyah! nyah!…they’ll laugh. But just remember this brother, nobody laughs forever! There’ll come a time when they’ll stop laughing, and that will be the time when our Antigone hits them with her words”
Soon John is called to the prison head’s office. He returns with news that his appeal was successful and he will be free in three months. Is it real? Is it a set-up to test him? At first, Winston is happy for John, but then he has a breakdown of confidence: can he survive without John as his cell-mate? Then there is a moment of clarity that flashes across Winston’s face, a liberation of sorts as Winston seems to accept his fate of long term incarcerations and a need to be resilient.
The final scene of The Island is the prison performance of Antigone. At first it is performed in silhouette. Then the two prisoners perform so all can see who they are; not as characters. John-as-Creon sentences Winston-as-Antigone to be walled up in a cave for having defied him and done her duty towards her dead brother. The final image is one to witness, not for me to ruin here for you. It is remarkably powerful in depicting resistance and shared responsibility.
Over the play’s 80 minutes we lean forward taking in the shared journey of John and Winston that led them to their island prison: how they survive together with pointed, almost “old-married couple” humor; needling and sharing intimacies, all with great felt pain as an overlay. We are in Brown and Williams’ grip as they squeeze us into attention.
The Island, as produced by MetroStage, is striking for its build-up of tension.The two actors are fluid, vivid, and eloquent. They bring us into their shared cell and their hard labor. They make us feel their isolation and desire to remain human beings, not “merely” prisoners of the State.
Thomas W. Jones II has directed a persuasive theater experience that agitates with a quiet intensity. From my frame of reference, The Island is neither a museum piece nor curio of something about intolerable evils from a distant past. It is masterful.
Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.
Note: The Island was originally seen at MetroStage in 1991 when it was performed in a store-front on Duke Street near where the Carlyle Plaza now stands. The current production is in honor of MetroStage’s 30th anniversary. Original cast member Doug Brown has returned to the role of Winston 24 years later.
Note: The 1993 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded jointly to Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa”