A Discussion of Theatrical Criticism, Started by Criticism of a Review

The last thing in the world that I want to do at this point in my life is get into a public pissing match with anybody, especially with the people who work in the theater world in Milwaukee – people who have been hurt so dramatically by the last 18 months.

Recently, however, I was blasted by Michael Cotey, who directed “Natural Shocks” at Next Act Theatre, for my review of that production. It’s a play by the uber-talented Lauren Gunderson, the most produced living American playwright. 

The solo character in the play, Angela, was played by the talented actor, Jennifer Vosters.  It’s a complex play and Angela is a character who has suffered an abundance of slings and arrows during her life and marriage to an abusive husband.

The problem I had with the play was that Ms. Vosters looks too young and innocent to have gone through all these trials and tribulations. I used some unkind words to describe her appearance, and I apologized to Mr. Cotey and Ms. Vosters for that excess.

The interesting thing, to me, was how many theater people jumped in on Mr. Cotey’s criticism, praising his words, vilifying me. I was called an asshole and a number of people said that I wasn’t qualified to review theater. 

I’m an old man now and I’ve been frequently blasted in my life. I’ve taken hits from the best in the world and I can take it. But I think it may be important for the people who make theater in Milwaukee to listen to a suggestion I’m about to make. 

YOU SHOULD NEVER, EVER READ REVIEWS!!!!!

Care about your art. Care About the people who work so hard to create an evening of wonderful theater. Care about the people who buy tickets to your plays.

But don’t waste a second of your life worrying about reviews.

There is a lot of research that’s been done showing that theater reviews have little or no impact on sales of tickets for regional theaters. A bad review can kill a Broadway play and a great review can generate support.

But it’s just not true in regional theater markets like Milwaukee. 

When I started reviewing plays after decades acting and being a patron, I had a conversation with a friend, Ben Brantley, who at the time was the theater critic for the New York Times and arguably the most influential critic in the world. 

Here is the conversation.

Dave Begel: What role does a theater critic play in the establishment and maintenance of a vibrant theatrical community?

Ben Brantley: A theater critic’s main purpose in this regard is to sustain an active dialogue about the theater and to generate excitement, enthusiasm, curiosity. And, yes, debate.

Dave Begel: Does a good reviewer need to have experience in the theater to be credible?

BB: I think it helps to know how theater works, of course, and to have had at least some first-hand experience. But I think what makes any artist good – which is a particular, passionate and idiosyncratic point of view – is not what makes a good critic.

Dave Begel: Just as actors, directors and producers are sensitive to what critics say, should a critic also be sensitive to what theater people say about his reviews?

BB: My personal position is that no one should read what critics write about him or her. And that includes critics.

Dave Begel: Should a theater critic try to be controversial or should he review the play as he sees it and let the chips fall where they may?

BB: Controversy is a way of making your name, I guess, but it’s artificially generated; it doesn’t have much of a shelf life. It’s always best to write what you feel, in your gut as well as your head.

Dave Begel: When you are a reviewer in a smaller community (like Milwaukee), how critical should you be?

BB: Honest but tactful, I’d say.

Dave Begel: Many critics seem to write reviews for the theatrical community. Is it better to try and write for the general public?

BB: There are specialty publications that write for the trade. Criticism in daily papers or blogs is written for the people who buy the tickets.

Dave Begel: And finally, what advice do you have to make this new undertaking a successful and enjoyable one for everyone involved?

BB: Once again, I’d say trust your own instincts. If you love the theater, as you obviously do, and can convey that love, you’ve already taken the first step toward engaging your reader.

I’m sure that Mr. Cotey and Ms. Vosters and the dozens of people who clamored on board that original critique of my critique will recover and now that normal comes near they will once again make theater that is remarkable.

I have often said that there is nothing that matches a night of live theater. Every time I walk into a darkened space I have hopes for an evening of excellence that will take my breath away. Most times in Milwaukee, that is exactly what happens. 

Break a Leg!

NATURAL SHOCKS AT NEXT ACT SHORT ON THE SHOCKS

JENNIFER VOSTERS IN NATURAL SHOCKS

I spent hours after the ending of “Natural Shocks” trying to figure out why I didn’t care about Angela.

Played by Jennifer Vosters, Angela is the one and only character in the play by Lauren Gunderson, whom theater people never tire of telling us is the most produced living playwright in the United States. It is open at Next Act Theatre.

I’ve seen a lot of Ms. Gunderson’s work and she is worthy of all the admiration.

So, what was it that kept me from giving a damn about Angela.

Angela is in her basement and we are with her. She tells us about the tornado that is coming, complete with realistic sound design by Peter Goode. The noise is fearsome and yet, there is something disconcerting about how intermittent it is.

I can only guess that when a tornado is coming, it arrives with ferocity, does its damage, and then leaves that eerie quiet. This tornado shouts, goes mute, shouts again minutes later and then is quiet. Like I say, it sounded both real and fake.

As if she is certain she will be a victim of the tornado, Angela spends an hour telling us all about her life. She started out life as a croupier in a casino, where she met the man who would become her husband.

She loved math and probabilities and eventually ended up as an insurance agent, pushing numbers and policies. She told us all about the chances of a wide variety of potential danger.

She also brought her deceased mother into the discussion and, like so many people, her relationship with dear mommy was complicated, to say the least. From the moments of childhood joy, holding hands walking through a Disney amusement park just after the man of the house had split for good, to the claims that this boy was not the right match for Angela. 

For Angela, life is a series of fantasies and lies that have helped hold her interest level high in her own life. 

“The great lie of my life,” she admits, “is that I am happy with him.”

Aha! That’s what this is about. She’s unhappy with her husband, and lo and behold as we move along through all the ordinary stuff of herlife, we can feel that she is approaching some kind of dramatic act in her marriage.

“You live next to a flower,” she tells us/him, “I live next to a bomb.”

She’s sad. But more than that she is scared, of him and of leaving him. She’s thought about it before, even planned it, but still, a decade later, she is still stuck here.

And that may be my problem with this play.

Angela doesn’t seem like she’s very special at all. There doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for us to invest our emotional capital in her life.

When I go to the theater I’m ready to join in whatever journey takes place on a stage. I’ll give it up, but I’ve got to know why I’m reacting and what I’m reacting to.

Part of the issue with this production, which has received generally positive reviews around the country, is Ms. Vosters.

I have great admiration for all of the dedication and work she has put into building her career. 

But Angela is a woman with scars on her soul and miles on her shoulders. Ms. Vosters looks like an unsullied 20-year-old blonde.  She could be sitting in the third row of a freshman English Lit lecture hall. 

She pulls out all stops to try and put weight on the flimsy butterfly of a play but all her skills can’t lift this play out of something far more ordinary than I had hoped it would be. 

Natural Shocks runs through June 13 at www.nextact.org

Production credits: Director, Michael Cotey; Sound Design and Editing, Peter Goode; Stage Manager, Jessica Connellly.

Lots of Laughs with a Message in “The Thanksgiving Play” at Chamber

Eric Schabla, Torrey Hanson, Hannah Shay and Kelsey Brennan in The Thanksgiving Play

Sometimes you know exactly where the road is going  to take you, but it doesn’tmatter that you already know. 

Because you just know that getting there is going to be more than half the fun.

Such is the 90 minutes of “The Thanksgiving Play,” which opened at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre this week. 

Logan is a high school drama teacher and she has gotten a few grants to celebrate Thanksgiving by designing and directing a play that is to be culturally sensitive to Native Americans.

Logan (Kelsey Brennan) is passionately politically correct and she is joined in her campaign by her boyfriend, Jaxton (Eric Schabla), equally submerged in that sea of passionate belief. He gives her a rehearsal gift of a mason jar made from the “recycled glass from broken windows in housing projects.”

The other cast members are Caden (Torrey Hanson) a fellow teacher who is also an amateur actor and playwright and dedicated historical researcher and Alicia (Hannah Shay), a Los Angeles actor who Logan thought was a real Native American, thereby fulfilling the Native American grant she received for the play. Logan made the mistake because of a headshot Alicia had of her wearing braids and a turquoise necklace.

There is no script for Logan’s play. It’s going to be developed by a lengthy process of improvisation, a process most likely to fail in spectacular fashion given the lack of any real creative bones in these four. She wants to “devise” the play but we, the audience, know that this journey is going to be full of missteps.

For Logan the goal is to not only produce the most culturally sensitive pageant ever, but is also trying to burnish her reputation after her recent productio of {The Iceman Cometh” with 15-year-olds led 300 parents to sign a petition calling for her to be fired. 

Written by Larissa FastHorse, a member of the Sicangu Lakota tribe, the play is very very funny. But it’s also a broad satire about people who are woke, who think they have high level sensitivity to all issues of diversity and prejudice.  Ms.FastHorse has described her play as “making fun of white people for 82 minutes.”

Under the veteran direction of Laura Gordon this production has the kind of pace that is integral to good comedy. It’s the final play in the 2020-21 virtual season from Chamber Theatre, and the first under Artistic Director Brent Hazelton.

I hope he choice of “TheThanksgiving Play” is an indication of the kind of production we can look forward to under Mr. Hazelton’s guidance. It’s fun but has a message that skewers the whitewashed version of the Thanksgving holiday we have all come to believe. 

In  a serious vein, doing a play like this presents certain risks – that a portion of an audience might well take offense at a particular portrayal. But it is taking these kinds of risks that make for great theater and Mr. Hazelton deserves great credit for choices like this. 

Production credits: Director, Laura Gordon, Stage Manager, Briana J. Fahey; Composition and Sound Designer, Joseph R. Cerqua; Costume Designer, Misti Bradford; Scenic Designer, Jason Fassl; Lighting Designer, Marisa Abbott; Properties Designer, Jim Guy; Dramaturg, Benjamin Wilson; Production photographer, Paul Ruffalo.

A Special Kind of Hell in War Story at Next Act Theatre

Chiké Johnson and Casey Hoekstra in “9 Circles” at Next Act

Yes, war is, indeed, hell. 

And hell, according to Dante’s “Inferno,” is 9 circles. Nine phases, locations, activities.

And in it’s production of “9 Circles” by Bill Cain, Next Act Theatre the full horror of the particular hell that war can be is on full and eloquent display.

Under the taught direction of Michael Cotey Mr. Cain’s play suffers from occasionally pretentious dialogue (early on I found myself saying “real people don’t really talk like that”) but makes up for this tiny failing with a taut story that starts out in shock and continually raises the stakes over the next 90 minutes. 

We meet Private Daniel Reeves (Casey Hoekstra) as he is on the verge of being mustered out of his tour of duty in Iraq. It takes only moments for us to realize that he doesn’t want to go. He wants to stay and kill the enemy.  He  makes it clear that he is not in the least bit upset by killing, making him, in his own mind, a special and unique soldier. 

Mr. Cain takes us through a journey that matches the most vivid and egregious visions of wartime atrocity that we could ever imagine. 

As circle upon circle reveal themselves, we find that Private Reeves has been accused of a variety of horror, including the murder of an Iraqui family and the rape and murder fo a 14-year old girl. 

Mr. Cain is a Jesuit priest and his profound distrust and dislike for war is evident throughout the play. Although Private Reeves is a monster the play, perhaps surprisingly,there is no blanket indictment of military personnel. It’s abundantly clear that Private Reeves is horrifyingly unique chimera in fatigues.

This play is more of an argument advanced to end war than it is a drama designed to entertain or educate. But the fascination is not to be denied. It’s almost impossible to not watch or be terrified at Private Reeves. In a larger sense the horror at the recruitment of such unbalanced young men and the arming of them with the weapons of war raises serious and unanswerable questions. 

Playing lawyers and military personnel and psychiatrists are Malkia Stampley, Chiké Johnson and David Cecsarini and they all surround Mr. Hoekstra with fearsome authenticity.  Each has moments where the sparks seem about to ignite an inferno.

But it is Mr. Hoekstra who carries the weight of this play. This role demands an incredible reach of emotional intensity and he delivers with nary a misstep. Indeed, Mr. Hoekstra stimulates a repugnance that is unmatched in my experience. 

Mr. Cotey, who cut his theatrical teeth at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee and as a founder of the late Youngblood Theatre, is on the road to being one of the finest young directors in the country. He has earned his spurs the right way, continuing education and assisting some of the most experienced directors in outstanding companies. 

This production continues the enviable record that Mr. Cecsarini has built at Next Act as a company that takes on the most controversial and pressing societal questions. 

Production credits: Director, Michael Cotey; Scenic Design, Steve Barnes; Lighting Design, Noele Stollmack; Costume Design, Lindsey Kuhlmann; Sound Design, Gover Hollway; Properties Manager, Heidi Salter; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly; Videographer and photographer, Timothy Moder.

Surprise is the Story in Chamber’s Brilliant Production of “Lintel”

Elyse Edelman in “Underneath the Lintel” at Chamber Theatre

There is perhaps nothing in the world quite like a surprise. 

They come in all forms and in all manner, but the one thing that a great surprise has is that it makes you smile.

A surprise is different from a shock. Surprise is gentle and slow while a shock has all the subtlety of a hard slap across your face.

The reason that surprise has become the subject today is that the Glen Berger play, “Underneath the Lintel” has opened at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and it is a story that makes you appreciate how important a surprise can be in a life. 

The play is the story of a Dutch librarian (Elyse Edelman) whose task is to pick up the books left in the overnight box, check them back in, and levy fines for those that are overdue.

One box contains a copy of a Baedeker’s travel guide that had been checked out 113 years ago. Ms. Edelman is incredibly surprised by this ancient return and that surprise stimulates her into following a mysterious trail to find the answers to the questions surrounding this remarkable event.

This librarian, trapped in an unremarkable and mundane life, seizes on a deeply hidden and surprising curiosity to begin a journey that seduces the audience into joining her no matter where this trail leads.

And what a trail it is.

Using a flimsy excuse to her boss, she empties her meager bank account and takes off in search of…something. She faces one question as she sets out – who took this book out and how did it come back 113 years later. 

But as she moves from clue to clue and place to place, she finds the questions piling up and the answers remaining ever more elusive. 

From present day London her journey takes her back to the days of Christ and the tale of the Wandering Jew, the man who stood under his lintel as Christ passed by, asking for aid, but being denied. That denial, of course, cursed the Jew to a life of wandering the earth, unfulfilled. 

Brent Hazelton, the Artistic Director at Chamber, directed this production with a gentle hand that placed unlimited faith in Ms. Edelman, an actor of immense endowment. It takes immense courage and intelligence for a director to pull back and allow an actor in his charge to take off under her own wings and fly unburdened by second-guessing. Mr. Hazelton eloquently displays both that courage and intelligence.

As for Ms. Edelman, there are few words left unused to describe the thrall in which she always enwraps a story, a character and, most importantly, an audience. There is nothing that is too much for her, whether it be silly humor or searing drama. 

With the librarian, she creates a character with well defined layers. On one hand she is  dumpy and perpetually trapped in a vise of the ordinary. On the other hand she is passionate and dedicated to an unquenchable thirst that is a surprise, both to her and to all of  us watching this happen. 

This production is almost a perfect play for our time. For over a year we have all been trapped by an external force that seemed like a straightjacket. It has made us as lonely and sad as, say, a spinster Dutch librarian. 

As this play eloquently shows, all we need is the same thing that freed her from her bonds – a stunning surprise.

“Underneath the Lintel runs through May 2 and tickets are available at https://www.milwaukeechambertheatre.org.

Production credits: Director, Brent Hazelton; Stage Manager, Monique Barthel; Composer and Sound Designer, Josh Schmidt; Scenic Properties and Projection Designer, Madelyn Yee; Costume Designer, Austin Winter; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack. 

There is perhaps nothing in the world quite like a surprise. 

They come in all forms and in all manner, but the one thing that a great surprise has is that it makes you smile.

A surprise is different from a shock. Surprise is gentle and slow while a shock has all the subtlety of a hard slap across your face.

The reason that surprise has become the subject today is that the Glen Berger play, “Underneath the Lintel” has opened at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and it is a story that makes you appreciate how important a surprise can be in a life. 

The play is the story of a Dutch librarian (Elyse Edelman) whose task is to pick up the books left in the overnight box, check them back in, and levy fines for those that are overdue.

One box contains a copy of a Baedeker’s travel guide that had been checked out 113 years ago. Ms. Edelman is incredibly surprised by this ancient return and that surprise stimulates her into following a mysterious trail to find the answers to the questions surrounding this remarkable event.

This librarian, trapped in an unremarkable and mundane life, seizes on a deeply hidden and surprising curiosity to begin a journey that seduces the audience into joining her no matter where this trail leads.

And what a trail it is.

Using a flimsy excuse to her boss, she empties her meager bank account and takes off in search of…something. She faces one question as she sets out – who took this book out and how did it come back 113 years later. 

But as she moves from clue to clue and place to place, she finds the questions piling up and the answers remaining ever more elusive. 

From present day London her journey takes her back to the days of Christ and the tale of the Wandering Jew, the man who stood under his lintel as Christ passed by, asking for aid, but being denied. That denial, of course, cursed the Jew to a life of wandering the earth, unfulfilled. 

Brent Hazelton, the Artistic Director at Chamber, directed this production with a gentle hand that placed unlimited faith in Ms. Edelman, an actor of immense endowment. It takes immense courage and intelligence for a director to pull back and allow an actor in his charge to take off under her own wings and fly unburdened by second-guessing. Mr. Hazelton eloquently displays both that courage and intelligence.

As for Ms. Edelman, there are few words left unused to describe the thrall in which she always enwraps a story, a character and, most importantly, an audience. There is nothing that is too much for her, whether it be silly humor or searing drama. 

With the librarian, she creates a character with well defined layers. On one hand she is  dumpy and perpetually trapped in a vise of the ordinary. On the other hand she is passionate and dedicated to an unquenchable thirst that is a surprise, both to her and to all of  us watching this happen. 

This production is almost a perfect play for our time. For over a year we have all been trapped by an external force that seemed like a straightjacket. It has made us as lonely and sad as, say, a spinster Dutch librarian. 

As this play eloquently shows, all we need is the same thing that freed her from her bonds – a stunning surprise.

“Underneath the Lintel runs through May 2 and tickets are available at https://www.milwaukeechambertheatre.org.

Production credits: Director, Brent Hazelton; Stage Manager, Monique Barthel; Composer and Sound Designer, Josh Schmidt; Scenic Properties and Projection Designer, Madelyn Yee; Costume Designer, Austin Winter; Lighting Designer, Noele Stollmack. 

Marti Gobel holds master class in Renaissance’s “Neat”

The ladies are on a roll and there’s no stopping them.

With “Neat,” the Charlayne Woodword play just that opened at Renaissance Theaterworks, we are once again treated to a one-woman play that is just as thrilling as it is important.

“Neat” stars Marti Gobel in yet another towering performance that sets a standard in MIlwaukee that is virtually unmatched. This show follows on the theheels of the opening of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s “The Way She Spoke,” starring Michelle Lopez-Rios. So we now have two glorious one-woman shows playing at the same time.

And the thrills aren’t over yet. Seven years ago Chamber staged “Under the Lintel” with James Ridge playing the role of the Dutch librarian. Chamber is about to stage the play again, this time with the brilliant Elyse Edelman in the role, under the direction of Brent Hazelton. I can hardly wait.

But enough about the parade of wonderful women. Let’s get back to “Neat.”

Ms.Woodard wrote this autobiographical piece in the 90’s. It tells the story of her growth and the ties between her and her developmentally disabled aunt, called Neat.

The story opens with a touching and emotional tale of Neat as an infant. She is accidentally poisoned by a grandmother who is illiterate and unable to tell the difference between medicinal bottles. Neat is turned away at a white hospital, and by the time they arrive at a black hospital, the brain damage has been done. And she will forever be marked by this racism. 

With dozens of characters encountered on her journey, Ms.Gobel weaves a fascinating tapestry of the passage of a young girl in Savannah, GA, to being a grown up. From her little girl to her school days, settled into a Jewish community and school in Albany, NY, we watch the people and events that shaped Ms. Woodard’s life.

There are heart wrenching moments in this well-told tale, and moments of high humor, like when she becomes the high school boy, Charlie Bowman, who has all the right moves and decides to make Charlayne his high school girlfriend. 

We travel along as this girl also tracks her changes through her relationship with Neat. In the early going she is delighted in her aunt, but is put off later as she grows and Neat arrives to take up residence. 

Under the direction of Suzanne Fete, Ms. Gobel conducts a master class in acting. There is not a moment that is too much,nor a moment that is too little. She clearly understands how this story needs to be told and he gifts that understanding to the audience. 

“Neat” runs through April 11 and tickets are available at www.r-t-w.com

Production credits: Director, Suzanne Fete; Stage Manager, BaileyWegner; Technical Director, Tony Lyons; Lighting Designer Noelle Stollmack; Scenic Designer, Lisa Schlenker; Sound Designer, Chris Guse; CostumeDesigner, Amy Horst; Choreographer and Movement Director, Jayne Pink;Studio Gear Production Services, Kimberlee Beegs.

A Troubling and Powerful Production at Chamber Theatre

Michelle Lopez-Rios in “The Way SheSpoke” at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

The moment arrived so suddenly and vividly that it made me catch my breath.

Michelle Lopez-Rios turns into a grieving father and for two minutes he rails at his government for not helping to find his daughter who has been missing for over 4,000 days.

Her entire speech is in Spanish and I don’t speak a word of Spanish.

But I understood exactly what she said and it’s that ability of Ms. Lopez-Rios to slide fully into the skin of a man torn by his grief that marks the strength of “The Way She Spoke,” the Isaac Gomez play that just opened at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. 

This is a troubling play about a troubling true story – the steady and unfathomable murder of women over three decades in Juarez, the Mexican town just across the border from El Paso, the Texas home of Mr. Gomez.

It’s a play about the journey of a playwright to Juarez for research for a play he is writing. 

The setup has Mr. Gomez, accompanied by a friend who lives in Juarez, Blanca, embarking on a journey that is increasingly chilling in its discovery of the breadth and depth of this ongoing horror.

During the 80 minutes of this show Ms. Lopez-Rios slides between a stunning variety of characters, both herself as an actor reading the play of a friend, Mr. Gomez, and the playwright.

She also is a mother who has lost her daughter, the father, a murderer full of macho and, perhaps most horrifyingly,  a man surrounded by friends who calls Blanca out in the most profane ways as she stands at the counter of a small convenience store.

This production is a striking demonstration of the most sensitive kind of direction you could imagine.  The temptations for Lisa Portes when handed this olay, are many.

It would have been easy to use a wide variety of theatrical elements to hang heavily over this play, using lights and sound and images to enhance the structure of the play. 

But she wisely understood that in this particular case, less is more. Keep it simple and it is that simplicity that allows for the unstoppable pathway to the heart-stopping end. 

All of the surrounding elements, lights, sound, brilliant projections by Stephen Hudson-Mairet and costumes are, at their most obvious, only atmospheric. They are gentle arms that surround the body of the production, the center that is Ms.Lopez-Rios.

Doing a one woman play is a challenging task for both an audience and the actor who is performing. Ms. Lopez-Rios is marvelous in both her grasp of different characters and her dedication to the core of this horrible story. Watching her descent into the grasp of this butchery is both moving and mesmerizing which is exactly what it’s like watching this production. 

The Way She Spoke runs through April 11 and tickets are available at www.milwaukeechambertheatre. Org. 

Production credits: Additional voices: Amy Cruz,Liz Mary Hernandez; Stage manager, Briana J. Fahey; Production designer, JulieAhlgrim; Scenic and projection designer, Stephen Hudson-Mairet; Costume designer, Jasmin Aurora Medina; Lighting designer, Ellie Rabinowitz; Composer and sound designer, Christie Chiles Twillie; Production photographer, Paul Ruffalo; Videography and Editing, Studio Gear, Kimberly Beggs, LoganAllen, Derek Buggles.

Moving and Powerful “The Island” at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

Sherrick Robinson and DiMonte Henning in The Island at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre

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