Friday, January 23, 2009

Rebels With A Cause

In the days since President Obama was inaugurated, many people have slowly been coming to grips with the realization that America has reached an important tipping point in race relations. With an African American President in the White House, major changes are happening in American media. More and more advertising is featuring minority faces.  More pundits have had to rethink their usual stances. More faces of successful, intelligent African Americans in leadership positions are filling the news. First Lady Michelle Obama's fashion choices are becoming a constant source of news and gossip.

Yet, all one had to do was listen to the Reverend Joseph E. Lowery's droll benediction on Inauguration Day to realize what a long and painful road it has been to reach this point -- not just for blacks -- but for all Americans.
"Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right."
While August Wilson is famous for his 100-year "Pittsburgh cycle" or "Century cycle" of plays set in the African American Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, South Africa's Athol Fugard has had an even more prodigious output. A dramatist who used his country's racial tensions as an inspiration for putting the lives of ordinary people onstage, Fugard has continually used his plays to explain how what is personal becomes political and, conversely, how what is political can take on immense personal significance.

Some playwrights have an exceptional gift for capturing the music that permeates a culture's language. In his 53 years as a playwright, Fugard has developed great skill at bringing to life cultural situations punctuated by the markedly different dialects of a population living atop a cauldron of racial unrest. The power of his ability to create stage magic with words permeates the Marin Theatre Company's new production of Fugard's 22nd play -- My Children! My Africa! -- with such thrilling intensity that you sometimes have to pinch yourself to make sure you're hearing things correctly.  

As directed by Josh Costello on Eric Sinkonnen's sparse yet haunting unit set, the play is set in the mid 1980s, as South Africa hurtles toward that historic day in February 1990 when, speaking before the South African Parliament, President F. W. de Klerk announced his plans to repeal discriminatory laws and end the ban on rival political parties as part of ending his nation's culture of apartheid.

As the play begins, Isabel (a young white student on the debate team of her all-white school) is engaged in a shouting match with Thami (a young black student on the debate team of the hosting all-black school) under the supervision of Thami's debate coach, Mr. M. Although she is very friendly with her family's black servants, Isabel has never really had any exposure to blacks outside of her very privileged -- and very segregated -- social universe. Startled and intoxicated by the stimulating debate she has just experienced with Thami, Isabel remains stunningly naive in her amazement that the black students at Thami's school  did not greet her with a sense of gratitude, treated her as an equal, and that she liked how it felt.

When Mr. M visits Isabel at her school and proposes that she and Thami join forces to form an interracial debate team in the regional competitions, Isabel is much more excited by the idea than Thami (who has always simply been told what to do by his teacher).  As eagerly as Isabel and Mr. M are anticipating the competition, Thami's alliance with a group of young political "comrades" comes with a much more urgent set of priorities for a young black man in Camdeboo, a small South African town where racial unrest is close to the boiling point.

L. Peter Callender as Mr. M. (Photo: Ed Smith)

Caught in the middle of current events is Mr. M who, at 57, is a firm believer that words are more powerful than brute strength -- that an ability to express one's thoughts can be much more useful than throwing rocks or inciting an angry mob. As a young man, he was thrilled by the ability of books and learning to transport him to places in his mind to which he could never travel in real life. Throughout his career as a teacher, Mr. M has struggled to fight the oppressive racial dictates of the Bantu Education Act in his very own personal way. He has devoted his entire adult life to teaching young blacks so that some day they will have the intelligence and wherewithal to work from within the system to help end apartheid. In Thami, he sees a young man with the kind of exceptional intelligence that might allow him to rise above the hopelessness which cripples so many of black youths.

As devoted as he may be to his students, Mr. M is still a conscientious teacher. When he senses trouble is about to erupt in his district, he goes to the local police and offers up the names and addresses of potential political instigators. As tensions mount and Thami drops out of debate practice, Isabel struggles to get Thami to explain to her why he's no longer interested in pursuing the regional competition. 

Fugard's powerful play is set against the seething passions of the mid 1980s -- the  beginning of the end of apartheid -- a time when black South Africans suffered from horrible persecution, violent riots, and when idealism often took a beating. Underlying the plot's linear momentum is an introspective battle for all three characters to protect one's desire and ability to be a friend, to fulfill one's intellectual promise, to be an effective mentor from another generation and different political tradition, and to come to terms with an unspoken love.

Laura Morache, L. Peter Callender, Lloyd Roberson
(Photo: Ed Smith)

When Mr. M is denounced as an informer during a meeting of the "comrades," Thami tries to defend his teacher's reputation. But when Mr. M finally confesses to Thami that he has, indeed, been an informant and explains why, Thami is helpless to prevent the crowd from murdering his teacher and burning down the school in which Mr. M taught for so many years.

My Children! My Africa! stands out as a play in which each of its three characters travels a tremendous emotional distance. Fugard's writing contains some exquisite monologues which, by themselves, are worth the price of admission. Under Costello's tight direction, each member of the tightly-knit ensemble is given plenty of opportunities to shine as an actor while basking in the richness of Fugard's language.  Special credit goes to  MTC's dramaturg, Margot Melcon, for researching the evocative clips of South African music which frame each scene.

Fugard's inspiration for My Children! My Africa! came from a newspaper article he read in the early 1980s about a black schoolteacher trying to cope with the violent unrest in his district. In an article he wrote for The New York Times shortly before the play's world premiere in 1989, Fugard stated "That item just tapped me on the shoulder. Life serves me up appointments that I've got to keep, and if I don't, my soul is in trouble."

* * * * * * *

Is Bob Byington the bastard love child of John Waters and Christopher Guest? That's the question that will haunt you after seeing RSO.  

Do you love deadpan mockumentaries like Waiting for GuffmanBest In Show, and A Mighty Wind? Are you a big fan of  snarky, anti-establishment John Waters films like Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Pecker, and Serial Mom that are filled with inappropriate sexual references and attacks on the status quo? Do you have a wicked taste for the prurient delights found in Todd Solondz's films -- Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling -- where the envelope of impropriety can't be pushed any further?

Then trust me, you're going to fall head over heels in love with RSO [Registered Sex Offender], which will be screened next month as part of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival (SF IndieFest). Imagine a documentary crew that is so exasperated and repulsed by its unrepentantly cynical and unremittingly vulgar subject that it finally gives up on producing a film about him. Imagine a registered sex offender whose combination of sarcasm, intelligence, and stubbornness undermines the efforts of every mindless parole officer and aspiring therapist who tries to contribute to his rehabilitation. 

Then think of the smart-ass slacker who knows exactly which questions to answer honestly to guarantee that he won't get a job. Think of every determined horndog/porn connoisseur you've met (straight or gay) who can't stop drooling at the mere possibilities evoked by the words, thoughts, and images that fill his day. Think of the class reject who went through his senior year with a 24-hour boner and you've met the protagonist of this film.

It takes about 30 seconds before you realize that RSO will offer a thoroughly scandalous, no-holds barred experience in which absolutely nothing is sacred. Watch the trailer below for a tantalizing appetizer to a mockumentary whose tagline is:

"A film that will touch you...inappropriately."

I tip my hat to Byington and his talented cast of professionals and nonactors who have managed to shoot a contemporary sex comedy about one of the most repugnant issues in our society and yet still keep a straight face throughout the process. Special credit goes to the slouching, snarky Gabriel McIver as the protagonist, to Kristen Tucker as his girlfriend, Tina, and to film editor Peggy Chen for her inspired choices.  

Shot in handheld HD format with a cast of relatively unknown talents, RSO is put together with a lot more precision and intelligence than many big budget affairs.  Listen to Robert Byington, Kristen Tucker, and Kevin Corrigan discuss their "process" in the clip below (recorded at last year's South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas) and then do yourself a big favor.  

Purchase a DVD screener of [Registered Sex Offender] here for $10 so that you can have the guilty pleasure of watching it in private and laughing your head off when no one else is looking. Byington's bitingly droll mockumentary is guaranteed to give you new and piercing insights into the culture of the penal, parole, and rehabilitation systems of the State of Texas.

No comments: