Athol Fugard Offers a Revealing Look at Race in His Controversial 1972 Play
The lines of personal and political are so indistinguishable in Athol Fugard's 1972 drama, Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, that it makes you wonder if there's truly any distinction between them at all.
Almost always frightening and yet only sporadically compelling, the revival playing at New Repertory Theatre's blackbox theater is more successful as a showcase for two brilliantly intense actors than it is an emotionally fulfilling work. This revival, directed by New Rep artistic director Jim Petosa, is ultimately confounding for that very reason.
The Immorality Act was an apartheid-era act that banned sexual relations between Europeans and all non-Europeans in South Africa. Essentially it meant that no nonwhite person was permitted to be intimate with a person who was white. The ban was not lifted until 1985, so when Fugard’s work premiered in South Africa in 1972, it was hugely provocative.
Not only does Statements revolve around an affair between a black man and a white woman during apartheid, but the play is performed almost entirely in the nude. I cannot speak to the ways in which, 50 years ago, this might have made an already shocking play of defiance all the more taboo, but in terms of this production, the nudity works beautifully in that it leaves these two characters with absolutely nothing more to hide.
While the play's title references statements made after the couple's arrest, about half of the play takes place just before. Errol Philander (an extraordinary Michael Ofori) and Frieda Joubert (a revelatory Eve Kagan) lay on a dingy mattress tucked away in a back room of the library where she serves as librarian. They've known each other for about a year, as Errol would make trips to the library in search not of her but of books. She initiated their affair, which is one of several of the play's intriguing looks at power dynamics both between races and between these two people as lovers.
Errol is married with children, but justifies their affair by comparing it to her white skin: She's sneaking out on her skin to be with him in the same way that he's sneaking out on his wife to be with her. For the better half of the play, the lovers stroke each other's hair, dream about the future, and bicker over a myriad of things that are, quite frankly, difficult to understand due to Fugard's cyclonic writing. But looming above all of this is the fact that we know they're going to get caught (the only other character in the play is a policeman, played by Tim Spears).
The impending doom creates a stifling air of dread, for Errol and Frieda and for the audience. The sky-high tension is one of the things that Petosa has rendered so strikingly in this production. But once they are caught and the policeman rushes in, the rest of the play consists of each of them giving their statements. Hers is mostly tearful and his is mostly ponderous, and while that half of the play feels overwritten, this portion is where Kagan and Ofori shine the brightest.
Statements is playing in repertory with Steven Dietz's Lonely Planet as part of New Rep's Statements of Survival Series, and both employ the same unit set (by Jeffrey Petersen) and lighting designer (Matthew Guminski). The set, with its upstage arch of chairs, works very well for Lonely Planet but is confusing in the context of Statements. Guminski's lighting, though, particularly in the nearly pitch-black first half, is stunning.
While the play comes off as more of a museum piece than it ought to, and its 75-minute running time feels doubly that, Kagan and Ofori's performances are two of the most persuasive this year. If only everything else were up to their level.