The Island, Congo Square Theatre Company, at the Chicago Cultural Center. This elegant 1973 Athol Fugard work, written through improvisation with famed actors Winston Ntshona and John Kani, is both a "township play" (an intimate, bare-bones evocation of South African life) and a "statement play" (given its date and relatively direct confrontation of apartheid). Two black cell mates jailed for political dissidence rehearse Antigone's judgment scene. The twist: the prisoner playing Creon will be released in three months--and Antigone is a lifer.
Accomplished actors Reginald Nelson (John) and Will Sims II (Winston) give well-measured physical performances in what could have been a grueling hour-plus for both audience and cast--neither actor is offstage for more than a moment, and describing incarcerated monotony without becoming monotonous is a real trick. Of course this sort of intense two-person drama has been written and performed a thousand times against the backdrop of jail, interrogation room, or existential sandbar--but so what? Tension mounts as John's release approaches and his relationship with Winston evolves from metaphor for the divisiveness of oppression to metaphor for the very structure of oppression: John embodies white guilt and Winston black resentment. The nonexistent set design--an essential feature of the original production--mirrors the privation the work decries. And the cathartic performance of the play within the play tangibly conveys the irreconcilability of freedom and redemption within a police--or slave--state. Theater of protest is seldom both so rational and so moving.