One of the most moving moments in the discussion of race that I’ve ever seen is five years old. It was in the summer of 2015 when Barack Obama spoke at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the black preacher killed in a massacre at a church in Charleston, S.C.
Obama was strong and unequivocal when he talked about race. Toward the end of the eulogy he paused.
And with a plaintive and halting voice, he began to sing “Amazing Grace.” All alone. Just a president and a song and his belief. And before too long, the congregation joined in and the organist found the key the president was singing in and added that sound to the song.
At the end, he read the name of each victim followed by the phrase “found that grace.”
He might well have added the names of John and Winston, the two characters in the Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona play “The Island” that is running at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
The play takes place on an island, clearly Robben Island, the South African prison where Nelson Mandela was held along with many other black leaders who had fallen under the brutal thumb of apartheid.
For three years John and Winston have been cellmates. And like brave men everywhere, they have created a mix of fun and games to help them retain their sanity that is threatened every moment by the callous and inhumane treatment by the guards.
They make up telephone calls to their homes. They toy with each other. And they plan on performing “Antigone” at the prison talent show. DiMonte Henning plays Winston and Sherrick Robinson plays John and we are greeted to them even before the play starts
The two prisoners, under the watchful and threatening eyes of guards, each has a wheelbarrow and shovel, filling five heavy bags of sand.. They load the sand and then simultaneously walk around to the other side of the circle and unload it. Over and over and over. It is mind numbing work as well as a body breaking task.The pang of this task is amplified by the beat of sounds designed by Peter Goode. The audience moves to the edge of their seat, waiting for the axe to fall.
Upon being returned to their cell, they are handcuffed together and forced to run in circles, ever faster and faster, spurred on by the shrill boatswain’s whistle of the guards.
But these two men have found solace, especially in the turbulent production of Sophacles’ Antigone. The play is about two brothers on opposite sides of a battle. They both die. The one who defended the state is buried with full honor. The other is forced into ignominy. Antigone, sister to both, buries her scandaled brother and is forced to stand trial for her offenses against the state. She pleads guilty but adds mitigating circumstances which is an eloquent speech of the need and courage of protests against injustice.
It is a not so subtle challenge from this play that raises the question of belief in a principle being more powerful than anything else. It was why these two men are in prison. It is why they have grown to be brothers.
In the end, it is honor that wins the day. John has his sentence commuted and is expected to be released in three months. He is both joyous but sentimental about this split. It’s as if we were married, he tells John.
The wait for his release is such a difficult period for both men. For them to say goodbye to each other and to their oppression is almost impossible to grasp. “Time passes so slowly when you’ve got something to wait for,” John says.
Some see this play in light of the current events of today with the insidious and frequent shooting and killing of black men, often by police, and the defenses offered by the state.
But it is also, I think, about much more than that. It sheds a light, not just on physical violence, but by the seemingly endless injustice we see day after day, year after year, against the black men who live in America. The protests against that injustice sometimes takes the form or behavior that runs against the norms of society but remains understandable as the only way to have a voice be heard.
That voice, is the voice of John and of Winston, two black men, suffering under the massive rock of public oppression, but finding ways to still stand tall. Johnson and Banks give powerful performances of almost incredible physicality combined with nuanced intellect.
“The Island” continues through March 28 as a virtual experience that is very well done and fels like being in the heatre. Information and ticckts are available at milwaukeechangertheatre.org