NEW YORK — My Children! My Africa! Play by Athol Fugard. Directed by Mr. Fugard. Starring John Kani, Courtney B. Vance, Lisa Fugard. `MY CHILDREN! MY AFRICA!'' is as much a lament as it is the title of Athol Fugard's profoundly moving new play at the Perry Street Theatre. The austere classroom of a school for blacks in a small Eastern Cape Karoo town serves as both setting and crucible as Mr. Fugard once more probes the tragedy of apartheid in acutely individual and human terms. Originally performed at Johannesburg's Market Theatre last June, this latest work is also one of Fugard's most eloquent. (It is, he recently told Monitor writer Louise Sweeney ``my literary manifesto. It has a number of themes, but one of the central themes is the power of the written and spoken word ....'') The three-character play - scheduled to run through Jan. 14 - begins with a comically spirited shouting match as Mr. M (John Kani), a dedicated black high school teacher, tries to impress two teenage students with the basic principles of debate. The situation is unusual because, although the debate is taking place in a school for blacks, one of the participants is a visitor from an all-white prep school for girls. Isabel Dyson (Lisa Fugard) is upholding a feminist position against the traditionalist male view defended by Thami Mbikwana (Courtney B. Vance), Mr. M's cherished prize pupil.
The class votes Isabel the winner and Thami takes his defeat with graceful good humor. Delighted over the success of his experiment, Mr. M. proposes that Isabel and Thami team up to enter a school English literature competition. The young people are soon furiously challenging each other with quotes, writer identifications, and other literary quiz posers. Mr. M. is euphoric.
Suddenly the atmosphere changes. Isabel senses that Thami is no longer an enthusiastic participant. In fact, he has withdrawn to join his ``comrades'' in a school boycott destined for violence and tragedy. The desperate Thami dismisses Mr. M with ``He knows nothing and sees nothing.'' He finally overcomes his reluctance to challenge Teacher. The power of the written and spoken word have surrendered to the power of the mob.
Fugard places the immediate confrontation in the context of South Africa's larger tragedy. While Thami noisily defends what Mr. M considers vandalism and lawlessness, the elderly teacher makes an eloquent plea for the values that have inspired him as an enlightened teacher. Isabel is the increasingly dismayed witness, the intelligent outsider unable to comprehend Thami's behavior toward his devoted mentor.
As his own director, Fugard rewards the spectator with a performance of tremendous emotional substance and integrity. Nothing is more eloquent than Mr. M's imaginary vision of Africa - and Odyssey of the soul. Mr. Kani, a Tony Award winner for his performances in Fugard's ``Sizwe Bansi is Dead'' and ``The Island,'' responds to the soaring language with an inspired delivery. The actor can be equally impassioned in Mr. M's defense of an honorable profession. When the teacher defies Thami and the comrades by ringing his school bell, there is no doubting for whom the bell tolls.
Mr. Vance gives a highly aware and intelligent performance of a brilliant young black driven beyond the joys of academia to challenge the very system in which he has appeared to flourish. ``The classroom,'' he tells Isabel, ``is what we're up against.'' Ms. Fugard, the playwright's daughter, presents the attractive figure of a bright, smartly uniformed, middle-class white preppie. Isabel quickly grasps the terms on which she may find acceptance in Mr. M's little world, but she acts with uncomprehending horror when events get out of hand and the rocks start flying.
The New York Theatre Workshop production designed by Susan Hilferty (set and costumes) and Dennis Parichy (lighting) suits the drab workaday world of Mr. M's classroom.