In 'The Island,' Now at Ensemble Theater, Silence Weighs a Ton

The anti-apartheid play first staged in Cape Town 50 years ago still resonates today

click to enlarge In 'The Island,' Now at Ensemble Theater, Silence Weighs a Ton
Lindsey Beckwith Photography

Sometimes, a play does more when there are no words spoken than when the characters deliver their lines.

And the silences in The Island, now at Ensemble Theatre, lay on you with the weight of years of oppression, a heaviness that even freedom cannot entirely erase. In its four scenes, this anti-apartheid play—first performed in Cape Town 50 years ago—expresses both the desperation and hope of people longing for justice.

Athol Fugard, a white dissident playwright along with two Black actor/writers, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, wrote this play to examine the effect of apartheid and unjust incarceration. Their unnamed island is modeled upon the infamous Robben Island prison in South Africa where Nelson Mandela was held for many years.

That huge concept is delivered powerfully in the first scene in which not a word is uttered. The two men, named after the actors who co-wrote the script, mime working in a quarry where they are compelled to shovel and haul sand from one spot to another—a pointless, backbreaking task that is meant to crush their bodies and spirit. The only outside force is a whistle blown by an unseen guard named Hodoshe (the Xhosa word for "carrion fly), a sound that tells them when to work, when to stop, when to do anything.

Once John and Winston are chained together and sent back to the small cell they share, we learn that they have been there for about three years, with seven years left on their sentences. They share memories of their past lives and help each other tend to their wounds.

They also decide to rehearse a scene from Sophocles, for an "entertainment evening" the prison is setting up. John will play Creon and Winston will be his niece Antigone in a rough semblance of drag.

But then John learns that his appeal has been granted and that he will be released in a few weeks, leaving Winston alone. Tensions arise between the two, and from there the play masterfully orchestrates the pressures of this situation to arrive at a conclusion that still resonates today.

As John, Robert Williams is more talkative and animated of the two as he tries to keep Winston's mood lightened, while Nnamdi Okpala's Winston is often given to brooding. But when Winston as Antigone rages against the sentence of death for a crime of conscience, the parallels to today are all too clear and present.

Under the eloquent direction of Sarah May, these two fine actors create a complete world on their almost bare stage. Beyond the specific and telling reference to actual prisons and prisoners, it reminds us that we are all chained together on a little island called the world.

This island in space is where invisible forces batter and brutalize, where we must struggle to find a human response to the inhumanity that surrounds us. This is where we must find the courage to fill the silence with words that uplift, not destroy.

The Island
Through November 12 at Ensemble Theatre, Performing Arts Center—Notre Dame College, 4545 College Rd., South Euclid, 216-321-2930,

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About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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