Kansas City Actors Theatre showcases two fine performances in its evocative production of “The Island,” a two-actor piece originally staged in the 1970s as a protest against South Africa’s policy of apartheid — the legal segregation of blacks and whites.
The play was born out of improvisation and is credited to Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. Fugard, the best known South African playwright, is white; Kani and Ntshona are black. The title refers to notorious Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.
When it premiered in 1973, the play was performed by Kani and Ntshona, who later took it to London and New York. The sharp KCAT production is directed by Walter Coppage, who seems to be involved anytime a Fugard play is staged in Kansas City, and features Teddy Trice and Damron Russel Armstrong.
The play unfolds in four scenes and is deceptively simple. Two prisoners, John (Armstrong) and Winston (Trice), share a small cell and spend their days at back-breaking labor in a rock quarry. The show opens with an extended pantomime sequence depicting the physical cost and seeming pointlessness of breaking rocks and transporting them by wheelbarrow from one side of the quarry to the other.
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In a plot point apparently based on an actual event, John has recruited Winston to perform the Sophoclean tragedy “Antigone” for their fellow convicts. They have no script and must reconstruct the play as best they can from memory. A dash of comedy is introduced when Winston, costumed in a wig made from strands of straw with tin cups for breasts, takes offense at John’s laughter and refuses to play Antigone.
At one point John is taken to the warden’s office. When he returns, he tells Winston that his sentence has been reduced and he has only three more months to serve. Winston still has years to go, and the development tests their friendship.
Ultimately “Antigone” goes on with Winston in the title role and John playing King Creon. Antigone, the daughter (and sister) of Oedipus, is brought to trial for burying her brother Polynices, a violation of Creon’s decree. As Winston delivers Antigone’s defiant speech claiming her right to bury her brother, he suddenly removes his wig and begins improvising. The speech morphs into a ringing claim to basic human rights and, by inference, a denunciation of the South African police state.
The play, then, becomes an affirmation of the indomitable human spirit and the transcendent power of theater to change lives.
The actors, who theatergoers saw perform together at the Unicorn Theatre in “The Brothers Size,” are well matched. Armstrong brings his trademark flamboyance and vivid theatricality to the role of John. As Winston, Trice delivers a nuanced performance in which he seems to reflect a complex backstory through his expressive eyes. This is a physical show, and the actors have more than enough athleticism to make it work.
A simple but effective set designed by Shane Rowse and Charles Moore frames the action, and Rowse’s impressive lighting executes subtle changes in mood and atmosphere. Sarah Oliver’s costumes and a sound design by Jae Shanks also make important contributions.
Apartheid ended in the 1990s, but political prisoners still exist in large numbers around the world. In that sense, this play isn’t dated at all. And it captures an essential truth: People everywhere have an inexhaustible capacity to create theater and, by so doing, express their essential humanity.