Monday, July 6, 2015





By Toby Zinman

For the Inquirer

The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, is about a real island in South Africa, the site of a notorious prison. If you’ve been there you know how stark and oppressive Robben Island is, despite its having now become—merely, happily— a tourist site. Nelson Mandela, among thousands of others, was imprisoned there under the grim laws of apartheid and participated in the events the play recounts.   Fugard, long admired as the courageous theatrical spokesman for human rights in his native country, gives us just a glimpse of what it must have felt like to be trapped—physically and psychologically—in South Africa.

Two black men, Winston (U.R.) and John (Frank X) silently—except for the occasional grunt—shovel imaginary sand into imaginary  wheelbarrows. This extreme pointlessness continues—director Peter DeLaurier keeps them at it for a good ten or fifteen minutes—until finally their day ends and they return to their cell on Robben Island.

There is to be a “concert” the next day, with various presentations by the prisoners. John has organized “The Trial of Antigone” wherein he will play Creon and Winston will play Antigone. Sophocles’  tragedy is about one person’s defying the state by challenging an immoral law. Sophocles’ play is profoundly complex and ambiguous; Fugard’s version of it is not. Like The Island, his Antigone lacks subtlety, but both the frame play and the play-within-the-play make a powerful point.

The first half of The Island (performed without intermission) belongs to John as the interpreter and instigator of events. Frank X provides a passionate and nuanced character study, and then a terrifying, ingratiating, utterly political Creon. The second half belongs to Winston who narrates much of their backstory right up until they lost their freedom After much reluctance, he plays a winsome and defiant Antigone. U.R. lets us see, at the very moment  his character suddenly sees it, the damage done by years in prison.

Lantern reconfigures their small stage into an arena, a square cell, a space (designed by Nick Embree) with the audience seated on four sides. Although conceptually this makes sense, it obscures some of the dialogue (all performed in dialect) since the actors often have their backs to us. 

The most interesting scene is another bit of playacting; John pretends he is calling home and carries on a conversation with various people in his life. The most heart-stopping  moment comes when he seems to be merely talking about the weather: “Tell her it’s starting to get cold now. But the worst is still coming.” One can barely imagine the courage it took to write this play in 1973 while apartheid was still the cruel law of the land.


Lantern Theater Co. at St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th & Ludlow Sts. Through June 10. Tickets $20 – 36. Information: or  215-829-0395.

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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