Dahlia Legault stunning in Stageworks' My Children! My Africa!

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As Isabel Dyson, an 18-year-old South African high school student, Legault is idealistic, assertive, vulnerable, rebellious, naïve, intelligent and utterly persuasive. As she tries to make a relationship with black South African Thami Mbikwana, solidly played by Joshua Goff (in one of his best performances also), she constantly reminds us that white good intentions just weren’t enough under apartheid, and that individual acts of decency were finally no match for mass action. Legault’s attention to detail as she plays youthful Isabel is nothing short of riveting.

From her South African accent to the anguished gestures of her eloquent hands, she’s the bright, sincere schoolgirl who just can’t understand why political stalemates can’t be solved with a little goodwill. She’s enamored of Thami’s charismatic teacher Mr. M – played perhaps with too much conscious heroism by LeRoy Mitchell, Jr. – and she honestly believes that by teaming up with Thami in a relatively unimportant school competition, she can make a real difference in South African race relations. Fugard’s play may be imperfect – it’s about a half-hour too long, and states some of its cases too repetitively – but Legault’s performance is just about impeccable. I can hardly wait to see what she’ll do next.


When My Children! My Africa! Starts, Isabel is debating male/female equality with Thami as Mr. M. looks on. We understand that we’re in a black township high school, and that Isabel is a guest from a much wealthier white area. We also learn that Thami is Mr. M’s prize student, the one whom he thinks he can shape, in his autocratic way, into an extraordinary adult. It’s Mr. M. who has the idea of pairing Isabel and Thami in a local school competition on the subject of 19th century English literature, and it’s Mr. M. who drills both of them on questions about the Lake Poets, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley.

But as this earnest experiment in racial harmony gets underway, a more obstreperous movement is gaining momentum in the streets. Frustration with apartheid is turning into collective action, with the black “comrades” calling for a boycott of the inferior black schools by students like Thami. Things get more confused when lover-of-learning Mr. M. declares himself against the boycott, and when Thami warns his teacher that the latter is getting a reputation as a stooge of the white power structure. Before the play ends, just about everything we’ve seen is called into question, from the relationship of Isabel and Thami to Thami’s respect for his elderly teacher. There’s violence too, and its aftermath. Finally everything has changed.

The Stageworks production is beautifully directed and designed. Anna Brennen once again elicits top work from her actors, and R. T. Williams’ set, suggesting a schoolroom, orderly inside, but put together with wood and scrap tin, is spacious and oddly attractive. Amy Cianci’s fine costuming includes an oversized sweater-vest for Mr. M., plaid skirt and blazer for Isabel, and gym shorts for Thami when he comes in from the athletic field. As everyone should know by now, Karla Hartley is the best lighting designer in the Bay area, and she creates this play’s atmospheres with her usual flair. She’s also responsible for the fine sound design, featuring African vocalists between scenes.

Anyway, welcome back to Tampa, Mr. Fugard. It’s been too long since your last appearance.

And welcome to our stages, Ms. Legault.

One of the pleasures of being a consistent witness to Bay area theater is watching new stars come into their own on local stages. I still remember the first area performances of Colleen McDonnell, Linda Slade, Jack Holloway and others, and I still savor those moments when I first recognized a talent that would shine in any setting. Some of these actors have stayed and have matured in front of us, others have moved on to work in other cities, but all of them graced us, at least for a time, with stunning performances. Tampa/St. Pete may not be a hub of American theater, but it has its luminaries, and they can make theatergoing thrilling.

Well, now I’ve watched yet another performer blossom. Dahlia Legault first caught my attention in USF’s Bobby and the Chimps and further impressed me in Stageworks’ Shining City several months ago. But in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! (also a Stageworks production) she reaches levels of artistry that those two earlier performances barely suggested.

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