My Children! My Africa!♦
Re Dan Rottenberg’s review of My Children! My Africa!—
You nicely pried open the can of what I fear is the problem with most Wilma productions— good acting and production qualities along with a surplus of rhetorical structures that substitute for drama with vision.
Do you have a clue why Fugard had Mr. M betray the rebels? It seemed entirely out of character, since he is (above all else) an observer of the struggle with no desire to become an actor in it— at least not outside the classroom. The device seemed only that— necessary to the arc of the story— but not consistent with the character, Fugard’s explanations notwithstanding. After all, as Mr. M says, he too is committed to the same vision of a free Africa as is his “favorite” student. So why would he betray his student and side with the most oppressive forces in his society— which, as you point out, never appear and therefore seem all the more oppressive?
December 20, 2006
I wish the Wilma had staged its production before the Lantern’s recent Master Harold...and the Boys. Yes the two Athol Fugard plays have similar content, structure and characters. However, while you allege that MCMA “smacks of beating a dead horse,” I would argue that the stark differences between the themes of the two plays make MCMA the far more relevant play.
MCMA is far more global and expansive, and much more political in nature. It deals with the question of how a group suffering political oppression should achieve their freedom. Mr. M wants to foster respect and understanding to erase ignorance; Thami wants to throw stones and petrol bombs. This conflict divides the characters from the start and dominates the action of the entire play.
In this sense, the wordiness and long speeches maintain a level of abstraction throughout, separating a universal theme from particular characters— very unlike Master Harold, which focuses entirely on character revelation and relationships. The vague, undefined characters and relationships allow MCMA to focus more intensely on the conflict of ideas. In that regard, I can easily imagine Fugard writing (and setting) that play in modern-day Palestine or Iraq.
Reasonable theatergoers may side either with Thami’s violent resistance against oppression or with Mr. M’s path of fostering mutual understanding. But just about everyone will disavow Hally’s racist evolution in Master Harold. And that is what makes MCMA more potent, and a play still worth producing: It still provokes not only questions but also debate over the answers as well.
Concerning your remark that “There’s a lot more telling than showing in this play,” those problems result not from Fugard’s script but from the production, particularly from director Blanka Zizka’s too often unfocused and unbalanced direction, and poor choices by the actors Yaegel Welch and Glynn Turman. For instance, rather than show early on a resentful deferment to Turman’s Mr. M, or display an open posture with Isabel, Welch’s Thami slouches his shoulders the entire evening. Why? He could have easily shown what the words only told, had he simply altered his posture, gestures, and tone of voice. Moreover, while Zizka has Isabel and Thami lounge on a blanket, never once touching, how could anyone in the audience think that there was anything but a reluctant divide (and not friendship) between them?
December 20, 2006
Editor’s note: For a response to this letter, click here.
Eakins v. Barnes
Re “Eakins vs. Barnes,” by Gresham Riley—
While I agree that the two situations are not the same, there is a big question here of validity of intent.
The Barnes was specifically set up and stated by Dr. Barnes as not being part of the "mainstream" art world or part of Philadelphia. Part of this goes back to the history of Dr. Barnes and the artists he supported and whose works he collected.
The move of the Barnes goes directly against Dr. Barnes’s will (and his written requests/requirements). It does not matter if the collection moved ten miles or 1,110 miles; he specifically did not want it moved or the arrangement and layout changed.
It is unclear to me that moving The Gross Clinic would have any of those restrictions. There are no known (to me) limitations as to what can be done other than the current public concern.
The Barnes case specifically shows me that if I were to want to leave something to a foundation, I’d better not depend on my wishes to be carried out. It surprises me that it was easy to get millions of dollars to fund the move but, somehow, the Barnes board could not get the money to resolve the significantly smaller financial issues that not moving would have had.
December 20, 2006
Gresham Riley seems to miss the key element when he says, “Relocating the Barnes collection doesn’t violate Greater Philadelphia’s cultural patrimony; it secures that particular part of our heritage.” Quite the contrary: If the collection is moved to Center City, it will forever deprive the city and the world of the opportunity to experience the paintings in the architectural and natural setting that Dr. Barnes bequeathed to future generations.
Mr. Riley totally misrepresents Dr. Barnes he says, that Dr. Barnes’s target audience for his artwork were people “who gain their livelihood by daily toil in shops, factories and schools, stores and similar places.” Had Dr. Barnes thought his foundation could better serve the public in Philadelphia he would have situated it in Philadelphia. On the contrary, he did not want the collection in Philadelphia and plainly said so.
Merion is 12 minutes from the Parkway by car and 12 minutes to a train station located two blocks from the front gate. People from all over the world manage to make the trip. The reference to the ‘posh enclave’ is frankly silly.
There are things that could be improved at the Barnes but nothing that a board of trustees with the will to do so could not accomplish. For a small fraction of the amount of money needed to move the artwork, the Foundation could be preserved forever in its entirety in Merion.
December 21, 2006
In my article on the twin thefts of the Barnes collection and The Gross Clinic, I distinguished between grand and petty larceny. Larceny is a felony, whatever its scope, and two wrongs do not make anyone’s right. But, as I argued, there is poetic justice when a thief has his pocket picked.
Gresham Riley disagrees with me in his "Art Wars." Actually, he disagrees that larceny is being committed either in the case of the Barnes or of Eakins’s painting, because, however little we may like it, Jefferson Hospital has a right to sell The Gross Clinic, of which it is the legal owner, and the trustees of the Barnes Foundation have a right to move its collection because a judge ruled that they could do so, and a higher court declined to overrule him. But legal title can still result in cultural theft-- precisely Mr. Riley’s position in regard to The Gross Clinic— and, by the same token, judges may err, especially when they fail to give both sides of an issue equal hearing, are presented with phony numbers to support Draconian alternatives, and have critical information concealed from them.
Mr. Riley says that both the Barnes and The Gross Clinic have "strong historic ties" to Philadelphia and are part of "our" cultural patrimony. Well, yes. Albert Barnes himself originally planned to bequeath his collection to a Philadelphia institution, but changed his mind when he was, as he felt, snubbed and ridiculed by the city’s so-called cultural elite. He then made a very deliberate decision to keep the collection wholly out of the city, and out of the hands of city fathers. He designated non-Philadelphian trustees to oversee his foundation, and stipulated that no one connected to the Philadelphia art community ever serve as a Barnes trustee.
Mr. Riley also deplores Dr. Barnes’s shortsightedness in not allowing his endowment to be more proactively invested. But in 1990 that endowment still stood at $10 million, and the Barnes itself was solvent. Had the trustees of the time exercised greater fiscal prudence, and at the same time petitioned for increased investment flexibility, the endowment would stand today at $30 million, and the Barnes collection would have
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