Spoleto 2009 » Theater

Revisiting apartheid in The Island

When Evil Was Legal

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If you were black in 1970s South Africa, saying the wrong things could get you arrested. If you held the wrong beliefs and stuck to them, you could find yourself in a tiny prison cell on an island with a slim-to-none chance of ever getting out. All because of apartheid, a systematic and legal form of racial segregation.

The Island was inspired by just such a real-life story. An actor was sent to a maximum security facility on Robben Island, just off the coast of Cape Town. By day, he did hard labor. By night, he rehearsed a prison version of Antigone. Apparently the screws were unaware of the irony of performing this Greek tragedy in a politically charged environment; it asks whether filial duty should outweigh state law.

The Island was developed in the early '70s by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntosha. They couldn't write a script in case authorities used it as a document in legal action against them, branding them as troublemakers. So they workshopped it, improvising scenes of two men serving an interminable sentence together ­— and rehearsing Antigone. The play went on to become an internationally acclaimed, multiple Tony award-winning production. It helped to increase awareness of injustice in South Africa.

Although it's a great piece of political theater, it isn't packed with preaching. It plays just as well now in a post-apartheid environment, because of its constant focus on the two prisoners. We watch them perform their interminable daily tasks, literally working up a sweat. We hear them bond and banter. And when one of them learns he'll gain an early release, we fear for the other man's sanity.

"It takes an extreme amount of physical effort from the actors," says Dana Friedman, who is directing the Piccolo version of the play presented by PURE Theatre. "They're literally doing labor with 13 cinder blocks and a bucket. They break a sweat in every show. It brings them to a new level of truth."

Friedman found the play while earning her masters in directing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, staging it in her first semester. She's best known in Charleston as director of the PURE plays This Is How It Goes, 36 Views, and Shining City.

"I've never remounted something quite like this," she says. "It's extremely intimate. We need very little to put it on, just a space and an audience."

And two talented actors to play the prisoners John and Winston.

Friedman found them in Joseph Anthony Byrd and Johnny Heyward, respectively. Byrd was in her graduate production, and we're lucky to catch him on the cusp of a stellar career. The day after he finishes this run at Lance Hall, he's off to play Simba in the national tour of The Lion King.

"He's hurtling his way through professional theater," Friedman says. "I'm excited to have him before he enters that world."

Byrd is accompanied by Heyward, who blew us away with his assured, natural performances in PURE shows before moving to New York a few years ago. The actors face the challenge of taking a play-within-a-play structure and making it gel for a Charleston audience.

"We all decided to attack the Antigone part of the play with as much honesty and text work as the story between the two men," Friedman says. The tragedy forms the climax of the play, so if it doesn't resonate, the whole show falls flat. But Friedman feels the audience will find plenty to relate to.

"The Island is like any play that examines man's strength within oppression," she says. "In the face of massive world issues, the individual still has the ability to last."

Powerful themes, powerhouse actors, an intimate space, and highly respected source texts make The Island a must-see.

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