‘My Children! My Africa!’ sparks debate
This weekend, the Performing Arts Department’s “My Children! My Africa!” invites cultured, intelligent and open-minded Washington University students to check their privilege at the stage door. Set in South Africa in 1989, the show follows the story of a dedicated teacher, Mr. M., and two promising but racially segregated students, Thami and Isabel. The trio struggles to find connection in a world brought to its knees by the violence and ignorance of apartheid. Along with racism, the play entertains themes of class warfare, the purpose of education and social awareness—whether or not truth is a hindrance or help to audiences and characters in processing the difficult material.
Directed by Bill Whitaker, the show is sure to spark intellectual debate and introspection among audiences.
“This is a university that has no small measure of privilege in its students,” Whitaker explained. “Certainly, diversity is something the University’s an advocate for, but really knowing it in the way that this play asks you to know about the diminishment of the separation of the races is an important thing.”
Ron Himes, the Henry Hampton Jr. artist-in-residence at Wash. U., the founder and producing director of the Black Rep, and the actor playing sage Mr. M., agreed with Whitaker’s assessment of the socio-political implications of the show.
“Plays like this give us the opportunity to look at what’s going on in our world,” Himes explained. “With the history of apartheid in South Africa and the politics of it, of a black president in the United States—it raises sort of the same issues. ”
“We have serious education issues in the United States as well,” Himes added.
Graduate student Daniel Hodges, playing Thami, relates to his character and the show as a young black male at Washington University.
“I don’t come from that different of stock from Thami, the character. I mean, I’m here now,” Hodges said, referring to Washington University. “But where I’m from is very much where he’s from.”
Rounding out the small cast is junior Kiki Milner, playing Isabel, Mr. M.’s bright, white and middle-class student. Milner has previously acted in the PAD’s “In the Next Room” and “Night Season.”
“It was great to soak in their energy, knowledge and experience,” Milner said of her castmates and director. “I learned a lot.”
Audiences will learn a lot, too. The show is, according to Whitaker, “a play of ideas.” It doesn’t make apartheid into a neat and tidy dichotomy or resolve the narrative arc of unlikely heroes. Instead, it asks audiences to discover connections between the setting of the story—South Africa 20 years ago—and the setting of the theater itself—Washington University in St. Louis, an institution that has had its own struggles with diversity, racism and classism. The theater department, while lacking in racial diversity itself, has become a safe space for students and faculty to explore an institutional stance on prejudice.
Directed by Bill Whitaker, assistant directed by senior Rachel Blumer, stage managed by junior Megan Yeh and assistant stage managed by junior Seira Furukawa, “My Children! My Africa!” will play in the A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre from Nov 21-23 at 8 p.m. and on Nov. 23 and 24 at 2 p.m. Tickets are $10 for Wash. U. students and can be purchased at the box office or online.