When interracial sex results in seven year prison sentences
“No vestige of a beginning and no prospect of an ending.”
Errol Philander quoting James Hutton on evolutionary theory.
On a set which looks like a cross between a sink hole and a huge, enormous inner tyre, come together two people in an illegal partnership. The set represents a vortex which pulls them both in and under. They are lovers living in apartheid South Africa in 1966.
She is Frieda Joubert, a librarian (Scarlett Brookes) and he is Errol Philander, a schoolteacher (Shaq Taylor) at a township school. They met when he came to the library to obtain a book to do with his correspondence course. He is looking to improve and she is looking to help him, but they fell in love.
They meet at the library after closing time but cannot be seen together ever because where they live it is illegal for people from different races to have sexual intercourse or co-habit. They have to switch off the lights and he cannot leave except under cover of darkness because the library is surrounded by informers.
Diane Page, winner of the 2021 JMK award, proposed to direct Athol Fugard’s Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act at the Orange Tree Theatre.
Athol Fugard’s writing centres on South Africa. His most famous play is The Island a collaboration with John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, about a prison under apartheid. His lyrical writing exposes all the tension in the relationship between the plain, nervous and isolated librarian and Errol given the surname Philander, who has a magnificent physique. Maybe shocking for us in the 21st century is the fact that Errol is married with a wife and children, but not more shocking than an interracial relationship being illegal.
We have been brought up to revile South Africa with its Apartheid laws and we forget that America too had laws, not repealed until the 1960s, forbidding such marriages, and not all in the Deep South, but in Maryland which outlawed such marriages until 1967.
Against slavery, Abraham Lincoln only went so far. He said in a speech in 1858, “I am not, nor ever have been in favor (sic) of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people”.
Athol Fugard’s poetic writing is more powerful for Errol as he tries to explain initially why he will not take water from Frieda for his drought starved township. We get the impression that this relationship might be in its dying throes because we don’t see evidence of the sexual attraction that brought them together, just the intellectual bond.
There is no humour or lightness in the early scene between Errol and Frieda. Shocking is the intervention of Detective Sergeant J. du Preez (Richard Sutton) acting on information received. As this jobsworth Afrikaaner talks about the photographic proof Esther Kehinde Ajayi’s sound gives us amplified camera shutters and Rajiv Pattani’s flash bulbs.
This portion of the play is delivered as a documentary, statements given in court against the couple with Richard Sutton earning credit as the small minded bureaucrat enjoying his cruel role.
Frieda says in court that she’s not ashamed of herself. Errol’s closing speech when he lists the senses he is allowed but not the ability to love serves as a literary castration. Shaq Taylor shows here his natural and affecting acting talent.
Niall McKeever’s symbolic sink hole set was a good idea and the swirling, coloured light being sucked in, in the final moments, is effective, but too much of the action in the library could not be seen by anyone not in the front row. This isn’t Athol Fugard’s strongest play but it has an intensity and importance in recording a brutality within living memory. Let us hope that we are evolving away from intolerance and inhumanity.
Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act
Written by Athol Fugard
Directed by Diane Page
Director: Diane Page
Designer: Niall McKeever
Lighting Designer: Rajiv Pattani
Composer and Sound Designer: Esther Kehinde Ajayi
Intimacy Director: Yarit Dor
Running Time: One hour 15 minutes without an interval
Booking to 2nd October 2021
Orange Tree Theatre
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge
at the Orange Tree
on 6th September 2021