Athol Fugard’s The Island, books about Robben Island.

We saw Athol Fugard's The Island at the Remy Bumppo theater last night.

A bleak, spare and unrelenting landscape covers the stage as the lights come up for the opening scene of Athol Fugard’s The Island at Chicago’s Remy Bumppo Theater.

The sounds are few: the crash of waves; the cry of seagulls; and a siren signaling the beginning and end of prisoners’ work shifts.

Those noises quickly recede, though, replaced instead by grunts.

The grunts come from two prisoners engaged in interminable, back-breaking and antagonistic labor.  One inmate fills a wheelbarrow with wet sand, wheels it over to the other one, and drops it.  The other does exactly the same.

For the first 10 minutes the tension rises between the two men as this pantomime continues, broken eventually by the sounds of pain from the abuse they have received at the hands of the warden who has designed their Beckett-like experience.

The bond between Winston and John, as well as their hold on their dignity, remains unbroken, but the later news that John may get out in three months threatens to do what the warden could not.

In between, the two men are preparing-John more actively, and Wilson with far more resistance-to stage a version of Antigone, Sophocles’ meditation on state authority and the limits of acceptable civil disobedience.

One of South Africa’s foremost playwrights, Fugard wrote the play in 1973, one of the darkest periods in the freedom struggle.  Nelson Mandela was in the first third of what turned out to be 27 years in prison. His mentor Walter Sisulu was right with him, along with Pan Africanist leader Robert Sobukwe.   The 1976 Soweto uprising was still years away, and the movement was at a very low ebb.

In this time, then, Fugard’s courage in bringing out light on the dreary island and the apartheid regime’s evil actions is to be commended.

Eddie Daniels spend 15 years of his life on Robben Island, and has written about it in his memoir, There and Back: Robben Island, 1964-1979.  We had the honor of hosting Daniels at our house several years ago when he was visiting the area and speaking to Facing History schools.  His book conveys the courage that drove so many to sacrifice their personal comfort, families and even their lives to the freedom struggle.

It also gives a feel for Mandela’s charisma, character and forceful leadership.

Mandela himself writes in a particularly memorable section of The Long Walk to Freedom about how he determined that he had to take a stand against the guards’ brutal treatment starting the very first day he arrived.

Like Daniels and Fugard’s work,  The Long Walk to Freedom also explains the sense of community, the commitment to education and the creativity the prisoners employed to pass the time.  In The Long Walk to Freedom, for example, Mandela talks about how he and the other prisoners used to argue for hours about whether tigers had ever existed in Africa.  Some said Yes, while others pointed out that the word for tiger did not exist in the traditional African languages.

Whether tigers ever roamed the African continent, it is clear that Daniels, the characters in Fugard’s play and Mandela emerged intact and unbroken from the oppression visited on them at Robben Island.  The island’s conversion into a World Heritage site and museum is an example of the possibilities that can come from such strength, political will and collective resilience.

Fugard’s play runs through the first week in March, while Daniels’ and Mandela’s books are available whenever you care to read them.

I recommend that you make some time to do so.


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