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From Washington DC to Camdeboo

January 21, 2009

When Marin Theatre Company decided to stage Athol Fugard's 1989 play My Children! My Africa! 11 months ago, Barack Obama's ascent to the U.S. presidency was a faraway prospect, not the dizzying reality that it became yesterday when the former Illinois senator was sworn in as this country's 44th president.

Experiencing Fugard's drama about a country on the brink of change just a few hours after having stood with hundreds of people on the Berkeley campus watching the inauguration celebrations on a big screen presented a different angle on the latest chapter in U.S. history. In my book, that constitutes a great night out at the theatre.

Set in the township of Camdeboo in South Africa in 1984, the play's story develops out of a teacher's (L Peter Callender) well meaning, race relations-strengthening ruse to co-opt his prize pupil -- the fiercely intelligent and politically-engaged Thami (Lloyd Roberson II) and a precocious, upwardly mobile white girl from the nearby prep school, Isabel (Laura Morache) into joining together as a multi-racial team at an upcoming national literary quiz. But even though Thami, Mr. M and Isabel all hit it off, escalating racial violence and school boycotts destroy the educational venture, forcing all three characters to take sides.

On the face of it, there's little about this play that immediately brings U.S. politics to mind. And yet as I watched the play -- which, despite the rather didactic second act, otherwise made for riveting theatre -- lines from Obama's inauguration speech, or thoughts that his speech brought up, kept floating into my mind.

One thing that struck me about the drama was Fugard's vision of the classroom as a testing ground for democracy. The play begins with a debate about equal rights for women and Mr. M goes to great lengths to show his students how the democratic process works and how its application in school relates to the real world. This emphasis on a nation growing up and progressing beyond the classroom into adulthood was also a key theme in Obama's speech. "We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things," the President said. "The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness."

Thami's view of Mr. M as ''an old-fashioned traditionalist'' who believes in the power of language and reason as the most effective means of achieving freedom also brought many aspects of Obama's speech to mind. Mr. M speaks in the play of the importance of building over destroying, echoing Obama's words: "To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West -- know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy." The President frequently pushed diplomacy over might -- a dualism rendered visually in Fugard's play through the symbols of the book of poetry representing education and the rock representing violence. "We will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist," Obama said. After the speech, many commentators spoke of the president's desire to return to the "old fashioned" and "traditional" values that the country has lost sight of in recent decades.

My Children! My Africa! brings this new chapter in American history to mind in more obvious ways too: Like South Africa in the mid-1980s, the U.S. is currently undergoing a radical shift, with recession and the war in Iraq causing a fundamental breakdown across many communities. The climate of apartheid that so noxiously permeates Fugard's play was recalled by Obama when he spoke of how his father, who arrived in the U.S. from Kenya, might not have been served at a restaurant in this country sixty years ago. Meanwhile, from a stylistic perspective, Fugard's play comes across like a long series of polemic speeches. I felt like I was listening to three inaugural addresses at the theatre last night.

On January 14, Fugard's latest play, Coming Home, had its world premiere at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut. I haven't seen or read the play. But I wonder if theatregoers on the East Coast who've experienced Coming Home over the past week, also heard the echoes between Fugard's dramatic landscape and our own here in the U.S.?

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