The Island is a play about apartheid. Its two actors are prisoners in a tiny cell on South Africa’s notorious Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was kept.
The esteemed playwright Athol Fugard wrote The Island along with two real prisoners, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, back in 1973. But because the two characters are in prison simply for being black, today’s audiences are likely to hear echoes of current racial tensions. Given the play’s themes, the roles of John and Winston have been uniquely challenging and resonant for the two men playing them in the Kansas City Actor’s Theatre’s current production.
Teddy Trice plays Winston, who is serving a life sentence for a small act of political protest: burning his passcard in front of the police station.
“In a nutshell he’s a hothead,” Trice says. “He was involved in this movement of trying to disrupt this horrible system.”
Damron Russel Armstrong plays Winston, the idealist. Before he was in prison, John was an actor in a company that put on underground performances of the Greek tragedy Antigone, itself a statement against an oppressive system.
“When you meet John at the top of the show,” Armstrong says, “you find out that standing up against the machine of apartheid was what they were ready to do.”
At the beginning of the play, they’ve spent all day doing hard labor in a quarry on the beach. The guard has beaten them, and they’re in agony. As an act of resistance, John is insisting they put on a jailhouse production of Antigone, which Winston believes is pointless. Much of the action in The Island consists of arguments between the two men about the value of putting on this play within the play.
But it’s the art that helps them maintain their sanity and their humanity.
When he first read the script, Trice says, “I just connected to these characters. It’s bare bones, them just trying to survive in this cell and under these horrendous conditions.”
“As long as they could find their way out mentally, they were never broken,” Armstrong notes.
In one such moment of mental escape, John pretends to make a phone call to the bar back home. He laughs and teases their imaginary pal on the other end while Winston’s eager for news of their drinking buddies. But the scene grows painful when John asks his friends back home to go check on their wives and families.
The scene is so powerful that Armstrong struggles to describe it.
“It just gives me chills,” he says. “It gave me chills the first time I read it. Every time we go through that, it just becomes really about how real it was.”
Also real are the parallels to issues in America today. Armstrong says that makes for an unusual experience as a performer.
“As the words are coming out of our mouths," he says, "there’s a realization this isn’t the ‘60s, ‘70s apartheid in South Africa – these issues are relevant as they’re coming out of my mouth. That’s very interesting.”
Trice says every role makes him a better actor – and a better person. This one especially.
“When I can empathize with someone else – because that’s really all I do as an actor is place myself in someone else’s shoes – living that helps me be a more caring, sympathetic, empathetic person," Trice says. "And this role is really special in the fact that it is very relevant.”
Apartheid, after all, is barely even history. It officially ended in 1994.
The Island, presented by the Kansas City Actors Theatre, continues through March 27 at City Stage at Union Station, 30 W. Pershing Road, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108; 816-361-5228.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.