Ensemble Theatre’s ‘The Island’ shines a harsh light on the injustice of apartheid
In Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona's epic masterpiece "The Island" two black men...South African political prisoners on Robben Island begin their day in the harsh glare of the morning. They are dressed in prison outfits consisting of what at one time may have been white shorts, white shirts and white canvas shoes but through the years of not being washed have a patina all their own.
Their days are regimented with whistles and sirens as each man fills a wheelbarrow with sand. John (Robert Williams), the elder of the two is working the lower section, filling up the tray, moving it up the left ramp over to the right down ramp where he dumps his load. Winston (Nnamdi Okpala) begins at the base of the right (down) ramp, filling his tray and moving his load to where John just cleaned up.
They synchronize their transfer of sand over and over again. It is all part of their sentence...hard labor...for going against the Apartheid Government. Except for one thing, there are no shovels, there are no wheelbarrows and there is no sand. This is theater at its finest. You feel the exertions of each man as they struggle to continue working in spite of the heat and their total fatigue and exhaustion. In spite of the hard labor and frequent beatings, each of them have an indomitable will and spirit to survive.
That evening, they are back in their shared cell rehearsing for the upcoming camp show. They have been working on the trial scene from “Antigone” with John playing King Creon and Winston playing the Greek female warrior. Having seen his “costume”, Winston is having second thoughts, fearful that the other prisoners will mock him and make fun of him at his expense. John tries to calm his younger counterpart telling him that what they are doing is for the good of the entire prison. Winston reluctantly agrees but still with reservations.
John is called from their cell one morning for a visit with the governor. He is told that his appeal has gone through and that he only has 30 more days to serve. At first, Winston is overjoyed at his friend’s good fortune but then begins to lament the fact that he himself is serving a life sentence.
With scant props of two blankets, two very thin bed rolls, a bucket, a tin can, a rag, a wig made of rope, a necklace made of string and nails, a crown of woven palm fronds and feathers and a medallion constructed from a piece of tin can and shells an entire world of oppression is painted right before our eyes. The prisoners know each other so well they can anticipate what the other one is thinking. There is a bond of telepathic communication between them. In their final scene, Antigone and Creon clash as Winston removes the wig and shouts, "Gods of Our Fathers! My Land! My Home! Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honored those things to which honor belongs" as the two raise their fists up in defiance.
Becca Moseley brings just enough props to convey a thought and no more. The rest is up to our imagination. Jill Kenderes furnishes the distressed prison garb. Sarah May and Becca Moseley provide the sound effects. The shadow of the prison bars is done through excellent lighting. Sarah May is the director.
This compact work (85 minutes with no intermission) is a perfect example of what Ensemble Theatre is capable of. They have a knack for finding the perfect actors to fill the rolls. The lack of props actually makes the work more enjoyable. What we think of in terms of “a day at the beach” takes on a new and terrifying meaning as we watch the two men struggle.
Thousands of men and women were imprisoned on Robben Island (including Nelson Mandela) and this work is a fitting testimony to their grit and their knack to survive and not be oppressed no matter how harsh the conditions. This show is a political statement that needs to be shared over and over again. Come be amazed.
Ensemble Theatre’s production of “The Island” will be on stage in the Performing Arts Center of Notre Dame College located at 4545 College Road, South Euclid, Ohio through November 12, 2023. For more information and to purchase tickets go to www.ensembletheatrecle.org or call (216) 321-2930.