It’s a premise for mesmerizing theatre. What to do in the face of imprisonment under degrading conditions? Do you have the ability to exhibit dignity in the face of oppression and raises one to keep some level of human respect, even nobility?
Such was on display between John and Winston, a pair of South African cellmates caught up in the apartheid movement, questionably imprisoned, and making sense of senselessness in MetroStage’s powerful cry for freedom, The Island. Created by Athol Fugard in 1972, along with John Kani and Winston Ntshona (who were actors in the debut performance) it is about Robben Island in South Africa, the site of the notorious prison where Nelson Mandela was held for 27 years in his struggle against the authorities.
…making sense of senselessness in MetroStage’s powerful cry for freedom.
As these much more anonymous prisoners, Michael Anthony Williams is John, the loquacious one, who possesses a fiery energetic drive coupled with idealistic values. Doug Brown is Winston, an affable good-natured soul that can’t comprehend what is going on, gets into trouble with the guards, and just wants to be left alone. A fascinating dynamic ensues as we watch the two prisoners who are together, side by side on a stark stage the entire time. They talk nonstop about hopes and dreams and memories– the only currency that has not been stripped from them.
Many topics are parried back and forth by John and Winston, as we first see them miming hard labor. Next John tends to a wound after being beaten by guards, with only a filthy rag to use. The prison treatment is mostly stylistic, unlike for example, the grim portrayal in the film Papillion about the French Penal Colonies. Closer to Roberto Begnini’s Oscar winner Life is Beautiful by creating a fantasy world in a Nazi concentration camp.
As they share laughter and tears, in an almost existential existence, they desperately try to make sense of their grim situation in which they are hard pressed to see an endgame. Enter their own creation, for sanity’s sake, as they putting on a scene from Sophicles’ Antigone for their fellow prisoners. Winston is reluctant and needs to be convinced to wear a wig to play the heroine. Not wanting to be embarrassed,Winston snarls, “Take your Antigone and shove it up your a*s.” Great brutally honest realism is evident in Fugard’s script.
So immersed are we in their condition that when John’s sentence is reduced, we wonder more about how it will affect their relationship than his hopeful future. Williams and Brown play off of each other amazingly well. In fact they recently partnered together in Two Trains Running at Round House Theatre and their familiarity showed.
Director Thomas W. Jones and Artistic Director Carolyn Griffin have restaged a gem that was performed 22 years prior. Jones’ work regionally is well respected and here the interplay between the prisoners is both razor-sharp and nuanced.
Set Design by Betsy Muller and Projections by Frank Labovitz were quite effective in unobtrusively giving context to their prison location, showing protest scenes and season changes—a needed visual respite from the laser focus of the prisoners.
As they stage their scene from Antigone, symbolic of the imperious injustice that authority can impose on people, Winston intones “Gods of Our Fathers! My Land! My Home! Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honored those things to which honor belongs.”
More than a historical reenactment, it is a reminder of the chaos and horror of what is happening today all around the world, flying in the face of where we should be as human beings in the 21st century. And how art can offer its own freedoms.
Advisory: Adult situations and language.
Running Time: 90 minutes without an intermission.
The Island is presented at MetroStage, 1201 North Royal St, Alexandria, VA from March 26-April 26, 2015. For tickets to this or other performances in the 2015 season, call the box office at 703 548-9044 or online.