EmptyFountain Theatre, Los Angeles
Through March 9
Once upon a time, in the prehistory of television half a century ago, networks used to broadcast live topical dramas that touched people's lives. The U.S. premiere of iconic South African playwright Athol Fugard's latest play -- an hourlong that is profoundly intimate and rocked by emotional explosions -- recalls those days with a play about inequality that is deeply sad and, perhaps unintentionally, oddly color-blind.
The story takes place in an isolated desert village where poverty among the poor African community is rampant and hope is a stranger. A young African couple, Freddie (Lovensky Jean-Baptiste) and Vicky (Tinashe Kajese), break into the home of a retired white teacher named Lionel (Morlan Higgins) looking for money. Finding none, they take out their anger on the books that line the shelves, the walls of the house and the teacher himself.
As the play proceeds, each of the characters is given an opportunity to understand the meaning of forgiveness as embodied in a Tolstoy story that Freddie urinates on.
Throughout the play, the anger that the young couple express toward Lionel is seemingly rooted more in class distinctions than racial hatred (though I think that each member of the audience will necessarily have their own take on this "analysis"). The blending of the two is confounded by the fact that Lionel appears racially neutral in the physical sense, and so the racial element never really takes hold.
There has been criticism about the play for its taking the teacher's middle-class, white point of view as the one on which the drama balances, making the backstory involving Lionel and Vicky patronizing. Considering Fugard's background, it would be surprising that he had not noticed this; in fact, it might be what, consciously or not, he intended.
In a note about "Victory" in the program book, Fugard says that after 50 years of playwriting, he remains a storyteller and that no political agenda is intended. However, given the racial dimensions of the presidential primaries in this country, it will be hard for many in the audience not to find an emotional trigger or two cocked.
In any event, the play is a model of precise, efficient construction, calculated so carefully that the flow of the story and its mostly small twists and turns function as organically as fiction ever can, setting the stage for three outstanding performances, each of which moves toward as much emotional catharsis and release as can be tolerated within the confines of the home and the relationships.
Kajese is particularly effective in this, using long stretches of silence to intensify her grief and motivate her reaching out to both men. As the play unfolds -- and despite both their own and their culture's limitations -- the three move toward the beginnings of a real if flawed mutual understanding until a final act of random violence seals their fate.
Presented by the Fountain Theatre
Playwright: Athol Fugard
Director: Stephen Sachs
Produced for the Fountain Theatre by: Simon Levy, Deborah Lawlor
Set/properties designer: Travis Gale Lewis
Costume designer: Shon Le Blanc
Lighting designer: Christian Epps
Sound designer: David B. Marling
Vicky: Tinashe Kajese
Lionel: Morlan Higgins
Freddie: Lovensky Jean-Baptiste