The Island

(Left to right) Kai Ealy and Ronald L. Conner of Court Theatre's "The Island."

When South African playwright Athol Fugard created “The Island” with actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona in 1973, the process was truly collaborative “devised theater” made without a script and based on real-life events. 

According to notes on Court Theatre's website, Fugard also was inspired by Polish theorist Jerzy Grotowski who believed that “theater (should be) stripped of ‘nonessentials’ (costumes, props lights, musics, even the playwright) …and left with the one absolutely necessary element: the living actor in (face)-to-face communion with the spectator.” 

Taking her cue from the original, Court's Associate Artistic Director Gabrielle Randle-Bent decided her first solo directing project for the theater should do the same: re-create, rather than re-stage, “The Island” for audiences.  

“In order for this production to be as alive, as relevant and as engaging as I know it can be, we have to make it together,” Randle-Bent said. “To try to be faithful to the text is actually a kind of infidelity. You have to make it alive for your moment, for the relationship between the two men you’re working with, and for the political stance they’re taking in their society today.”

Along with costume designer Raquel Adorno and scenic designer Yeaji Kim, Randle-Bent said she used an approach “favoring simplicity, symbolism and design elements that are gestural, atmospheric and functional.”

The result is a 105-minute evening that features superb performances by actors Ronald L. Conner and Kai A. Ealy, and a conception that threatens to get in their way.

Conner plays Winston and Ealy is John (not coincidentally the names of the co-authors). They are incarcerated as political prisoners on an island and, though it's not mentioned by name, everyone seeing the premiere in Cape Town would have recognized the infamous Robben Island, where anti-aparthied activist Nelson Mandela was imprisoned from 1964 to 1982.

Their days are spent in grueling, pointless physical labor. In the evening, they are preparing an act for the concert the inmates are going to put on for the guards and other personnel. John wants them to stage a two-person version of Sophocles' “Antigone” with himself as Creon and Winston as the king's defiant niece, Antigone, who breaks her uncle’s law to bury her brother. Winston is reluctant, not least because he refuses to play a woman.

Much of “The Island” consists of the men, who have shared a tiny cell for three years, bonding and bickering, consoling and commiserating, and engaging in pretend activities like calling home, as well as in John trying to convince Winston to do “Antigone.” Some of this is very funny but doesn't come across as well as it could. Some of this is heartbreaking. 

Their bond is seriously threatened when John learns that his sentence is to be shortened to only three more months, while Winston is in for life. His happiness for John's good fortune dissolves into a gut-wrenching admission of hatred and jealousy.

The real payoff comes in the final scene, a searing performance of a truncated “Antigone” with John's Creon forcefully laying out the state's case, and Winston's Antigone, arguably the first political activist to sacrifice herself for a cause, arguing that there is a moral authority higher than the state. This may not have the impact it did in South Africa 50 years ago, but it still is potent nonetheless.

The opening of  Court's “The Island,” on the other hand, is too much of what could be a good thing. The play usually starts with a wordless demonstration of the futility of the prisoners' daily routine, for example, with them digging and then refilling holes in the rocks and sand. Here Randle-Bent and movement designer Jacinda Ratcliffe have expanded this dumb show into a day's worth of arduous activities ranging from the men walking like robots to mimic being shackled together to shoveling sand and tossing it across a massive central stone slab they later climb on. All these motions are repeated multiple times, punctuated by a shrieking whistle, so the actors are physically exhausted from running around. I didn't time how long it lasted, but some audience members seemed to doze off.

The more-is-more aesthetic continues throughout, with Conner and Ealy continually taking off and putting on their identical prison clothing, using their single rag to wash, etc, so much so that it becomes distracting.  Yet in the quiet scenes, they speak so softly, it is sometimes hard to hear what they are saying.  

But overall, I was happy to see “The Island” at Court Theatre. It is a testament to the courage of its creators and a reminder of  resilience and humanity in the face of adversity. It also is surprisingly hopeful, especially when we remember Mandela's subsequent life.

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