Fugard’s ‘Children’ of Africa; Gray’s ‘Pursuit’: Review

James A. Williams as a South African teacher and Allie Gallerani and Stephen Tyrone Williams as students in "My Children! My Africa!" The Athol Fugard play is running off-Broadway at the Signature Theatre through June 10. Photographer: Joan Marcus/Boneau/Bryan-Brown via Bloomberg

Thami Mbikwana, the young man at the center of Athol Fugard’s “My Children! My Africa!” bristles with cocky, engaging intelligence.

Before the evening’s end, we will witness the burial of that intelligence as it ineffably transmutes into seething rage.

A debate over equality versus the traditional role of women in African society gets matters going.

The competition has been initiated by Thami’s mentor at a township school, Mr. M, a classic type, the teacher who cares, who sees in his prize student the reason for having stuck it out in a shabby, underfunded, race-driven school. He knows how risky the opening of young minds can be.

Hope, Mr. M tells Isabel, the privileged white student from a nearby school imported for the debate, “is a dangerous animal for a black man to have prowling around in his heart.”

Pleased with the chemistry between his unlikely combatants, he convinces Thami and Isabel to join forces as a team in an upcoming national literary competition.

This gives them ample opportunity during practice to recite the poetry of Wadsworth, Keats and Coleridge. At the same time, however, Thami is being pulled away from school by a growing populist insurgency that challenges his good nature, his patience and ultimately his devotion to his mentor. The consequences are devastating.

Hello, Mr. Chips

This 1989 play gets a powerful revival at the Signature Theater. The director, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and a trio of actors are so keened to Fugard’s deceptively simple plot that we barely see what’s coming. James A. Williams plays Mr. M in classic Mr. Chips fashion, finding virtue in conservatism and trusting in slow but inexorable change.

Allie Gallerani, in a role originated by Fugard’s daughter, Lisa, is touching as a third-generation citizen of a country whose white minority rules a black majority with the conviction of God’s will.

Best of all is Stephen Tyrone Williams as Thami, breathing truth into a gentle soul set ablaze by the poverty, starvation and humiliation all around him.

Neil Patel’s corrugated tin set and Marcus Doshi’s lighting set the bleak tone for this sad dance, given a lift by Bobby McFerrin’s subtle incidental music.

Through June 10 at 480 W. 42nd St. Information: +1-244-7529; http://www.signaturetheatre.org. Rating: ***

‘The Common Pursuit’

A different kind of heartbreak suffuses Simon Gray’s 1989 play, “The Common Pursuit,” being revived by the Roundabout in a production deftly staged by Moises Kaufman.

The play begins in the 1960s at Cambridge, where six friends -- five male, one female -- are starting a literary review named for the book by their famed professor, F.R. Leavis.

The action covers the next 15 years or so as their leader, Stuart Thorne (Josh Cooke), and his girlfriend (later wife) Marigold (Kristen Bush), struggle to keep the journal alive before settling into a middle-class life of compromised ideals and disappointments.

This is also a play in which a key character meets a violent death before the final curtain.

There will be strategically placed revelations involving infidelities, infertility, mendacity and other unsurprising plot twists, mostly ennobled by Gray’s surgical yet compassionate wit and a fine ensemble that includes Jacob Fishel, Tim McGeever, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Kieran Campion.

The playwright, who by this time already had written “Butley” and “Quartermaine’s Terms,” knew better than to tack on a sentimental ending. But he went ahead and did so anyway, taking us back to the story’s idealistic beginning. It’s devastating.

Through July 29 at the Laura Pels Theatre, 111 W. 46th St. Information: +1-212-719-1300; http://www.roundabouttheatre.org Rating: ***

What the Stars Mean:
****        Do Not Miss
***         Excellent
**          Good
*           So-So
(No stars)  Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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