Theater Review - Island of lost souls

Outfit’s Island transcends apartheid critique

Theatrical Outfit’s political drama The Island opens on a scene that suggests Cool Hand Luke written by Samuel Beckett. On separate corners of the stage, two prisoners (Kenny Leon and Johnell Easter) laboriously dig holes, with each emptying his shovel into a wheelbarrow. They fill their barrows — and empty them into the hole being dug by the other man. Then each returns to his own hole and resumes digging, until they repeat the process again. And so on.

The wordless scene evokes punishment through futile, spirit-crushing busywork. The play takes place at South Africa’s notorious Robben Island prison, which held political dissidents and anti-apartheid leaders such as Nelson Mandela. The Island attacks the inhumanity of apartheid, but playwright Athol Fugard digs deeper to depict two souls both at odds and united while in the teeth of an unjust system.

The play originated in the early 1970s as an act of dissent, since Fugard and his fellow artists could have been arrested for creating a work so critical of the state. The Island was first performed in secret, with no written script, and its credits say “Devised by Athol Fugard with John Kani and Winston Nthsona” to acknowledge the extensive improvisation by the original actors.

Theatrical Outfit director Kate Warner evokes the subterfuge of the script’s origins. The audience enters the Rialto Performing Arts Center, but walks past the house seats to pass through a curtain onto the stage itself, suggesting a show “hidden” from outside eyes.

The spectators sit in cushioned chairs that surround a raised platform, looking up at two bald, barefoot black men. During the exertions of the play’s first minutes, the actors appear to be emblematic, martyred figures — it’s like watching statuary that moves. That impression becomes particularly vivid when the prisoners are forced to run in lockstep, miming how one’s left ankle is chained to the other’s right.

John (Leon) and Winston (Easter) have been metaphorically joined for three years, and their relationship reveals not just their suffering, but their humor and artistic aspirations. With a prison talent show coming up, John wants them to perform a scene from Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone. Their discussion of the play leads to some very rueful comedy — John gets irked that Winston isn’t learning his lines, while Winston, cast as Antigone, bristles when John laughs at his make-shift mop-wig and bikini top.

Despite their moments of bickering, we pick up on the characters’ mutual support and ingenuity as prisoners. John gets excited about making “Antigone” a necklace out of twine and pilfered nails, and later he entertains Winston with an imaginary, one-sided phone call to their friends on the outside. Leon makes John a little more lively than we might expect a man who’s been doing tortuous labor all day, but the characters’ energies keep the play in motion.

The Island’s most fascinating turn comes when the cellmates discover that John’s sentence has been significantly reduced, while Winston’s life conviction still stands. Winston begins feeling resentful of his friend (“You stink of freedom.”) while John’s happiness is tainted by a kind of survivor’s guilt. Easter instills Winston’s lines with a world-weariness that’s all the more poignant and impressive given the actor’s youth. Even when Winston is amused or angry, Easter always puts a little despair at the corners.

The Island overtly criticizes the state in powerful terms, but provides an even stronger subtext about how oppressive systems can turn its victims against each other. Fugard at least holds out hope that such divisions are not permanent and that ties of brotherhood cannot be entirely severed. No man is an island.