"The Island" is also our island

It was assembled in love and anger thirty years ago in a world most of us could hardly have imagined, safe in our enlightened beds, until now.

In 1973, at the height of the Apartheid regime, the playwright Athol Fugard collaborated with John Kani and Winson Ntsona to develop the wonderful South African play, "The Island," being staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Harvey Theater this week and the next.

Barry and I were lucky to be in the theatre last night to see the original artists bring their work back to New York, to a society very different from that which originally inspired the work, yet one suffering its own new dark age.

The Brooklyn production demonstrates that the play has lost none of its power, and amazingly Kani and Ntsona have actually enhanced its profundity, without sacrificing its art, through tweaking and expanding the original lines of the final scene, a dramatization of Sophocles' "Antigone," with its magnificent theme of civil disobedience, by two convicts in the penal colony of the play's title. The play now clearly relates to a new authoritarian regime, and it pulls no punches.

Even without the changes in the script, the production would have been a triumph. As it was, virtually the entire audience, having audibly gasped at some of the last lines delivered by the two artists, stood in an astounding ovation to their accomplishment. Kani and Ntsona were nowhere to be seen however. It was clear that they wanted it understood that the evening and the work was not about them, and that it was no longer just about South Africa.

An extraordinary bit of theater and an awesome statement for all times. Don't miss it.

A personal note: In 1974 and 1975, when the play was first produced, outside South Africa of course, I myself was living an extraordinary privileged existence in that frightening and beautiful country. My only exculpation is the fact that I was more than aware of my unnatural status and that I was there basically hoping to learn more about the extremes of both human good and evil, in which I think I succeeded somewhat. Unfortunately South Africans didn't have to travel so far for their own lessons. In reality, of course, neither did I, and today none of us do.

[For a follow-up, on the morning after I originally posted this, see Bruce Weber's review in the NYTimes.]

Dear James,

I saw the same production at the Old Vic in London a year ago: equally mesmerising, spine-chilling, moving, heroic. I don't often use these words. It was a piece of very powerful theatre. Oh, and in 1976-79 I was in South Africa, living a safe life in a white suburb (as a 4 yearold); but what I learned about South Africa would come much later. best, k

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Published on April 3, 2003 12:43 AM.

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