The Island Unleashes History and Performance

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Photos by Jiuxing June Xie

Legends and history collide with explosive results in the Theater Department’s upcoming production of The Island. A staging driven by the momentum of two dynamic performances and an intensely political text, the Honors Acting Thesis of Niccolo Moretti ’10 offers a compelling examination of the experiences of political prisoners in Apartheid-era South Africa. The Island is directed by acclaimed visiting artist Suzi Takahashi in creative collaboration with Moretti.

Written in 1974 by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, The Island chronicles the playwrights’ own experiences under South Africa’s racist and repressive regime, and it intertwines history with the lives of two fictional characters. John (Moretti) and Winston (Luke Rampersad ’10) have been incarcerated in the notorious Robben Island Prison for defying the government. They endure years of Sisyphean labor at the mercy of sadistic guards without hope of redemption. As they wait, the two men prepare to stage Sophocles’ Antigone for their fellow inmates, and they receive astonishing news that irrevocably alters their friendship—and their lives.

Fugard worked with a racially integrated theater group in South Africa until he was forced to go into exile when the government persecuted him for breaching the race laws. He developed The Island with actors Kani and Ntshona through rehearsal improvisations drawing upon their own experiences and those of their compatriots. (For example, Nelson Mandela performed in Antigone when he was imprisoned in Robben Island.) In the spirit of the play’s collaborative intent, Takahashi and her actors worked together to realize the production. Moretti spent several months on dramaturgical research and design before focusing on acting. He and Rampersad even had the opportunity to rehearse in the celebrated New York Theater Workshop, an experience they describe as “incredibly exciting.” After months of preparation and rehearsal, The Island offers its first show tonight.

Takahashi’s effectively understated production showcases the talents of Moretti and Rampersad. The actors provide intricately calibrated performances in which the effervescent John and caustic Winston both emerge strikingly. In the confined space of the Frear Ensemble Theatre, moments of furious pyrotechnics and wistful contemplation powerfully evoke the anguished resilience of John, Winston, and their real-life counterparts. Takahashi says that the creative team never lost sight of the fact that “this really happened to people. Many, many individuals in South Africa were imprisoned and gave their lives for freedom.”

Moretti was drawn to the play because it dramatizes the shared experience of politically oppressed individuals —from the legendary Antigone to the twentieth century John and Winston. He appreciates the playwrights’ use of Greek tragedy to illustrate the trajectory of people who stand up to government oppression: “the play acknowledges the heroes of political struggles while reminding the audience of their distance from the struggles.” He adds, “The legend of the struggle is indescribable.”

The artists hope The Island will appeal to Swarthmore audiences. Moretti explains, “The politics are still very pertinent, especially in a politically charged location like Swarthmore. It forces us to ask ourselves where we are in relation to these civil rights battles.” Takahashi champions the play’s enduring relevance, urging people to find inspiration in both fictional heroes like Antigone and real people like Mandela and Fugard. “The play is a testament to the power of the individual to endure moments of political hardship and physical suffering. It speaks to our world today, allowing us to look at what has changed and not changed for oppressed peoples.” A short but unrelenting piece, The Island reconciles the singularity and universality of experience in one powerful theatrical event.

With sound design by Dan Perelstein ’09 and lighting design by Jesse Paulsen ’09, The Island runs in the Lang Performing Arts Center’s Frear Ensemble Theater Friday February 12 – Saturday February 13 at 8 p.m. and Sunday February 14 at 3 p.m.