For the great South African playwright Athol Fugard, the personal is political. And nowhere is that more true than in Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act, a 1972 Fugard play, based on a real-life 1966 case, about two lovers – a black man and a white woman – torn apart by the country’s racial segregation laws.
It’s an intimate play – really intimate. And director Leigh E. Bicica has heightened the intimacy in her new Fringe production by staging the play with the audience only a few feet away from the actors: there are only 17 seats, arranged in two rows in a semicircle around the playing area (which is on the same level as the audience, not on a raised platform). Lighting from multiple directions enhances the atmosphere (no lighting director is credited).
And the show is staged in a very unusual place for a play: on the main floor of the Independence branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, right in front of the Information Desk. That’s appropriate given one of the show’s plot points: the play’s two characters have their trysts in the back room of the library where the woman works.
Carrying out their adulterous affair in secret, the two lovers must deal with a government that has made interracial sex a crime, but they must also deal with issues of pride, shame and trust that would make their relationship a difficult one even without the racial issues. Fugard handles everything expertly, making the relationship vital and heartbreaking as it barrels towards tragedy.
Megan McDermott and Brandon Pierce play their roles with strength, sensitivity, and credible accents. Oh, and did I mention that they both spend more than 90% of the play completely nude? They perform with no apparent self-consciousness, which adds to their credibility of their performances. But while the actors appear comfortable, Statements After an Arrest is not a show for anyone who is easily made uncomfortable. (At the performance I attended, an elderly woman in the row ahead of mine spent most of the show with her hands raised to her face, shielding her eyes in apparent embarrassment.)
Director Bicica works with the play’s different moods effectively, moving in a heartbeat from gentle, tender moments to flashes of heightened tension. But the production moves too quickly at times, especially towards the end; it runs an hour, which is about 15 minutes shorter than most productions. A third onstage role, the detective who investigates the case, is relegated here to a pre-recorded voiceover (Jay Stratton provides the voice). Making a short play even shorter doesn’t help; spending more time with this couple and their heartbreaking situation would benefit the production. Also, the play is staged without a curtain call, which would give the audience a needed release from the edgy mood the play creates. (When the action stopped, it was unclear at first whether the play was actually over.)
Today, of course, apartheid is over, and apartheid-era laws like the Immorality Act are gone with it. But in an era where battles over racial discrimination and marriage equality rage on, the issues that Fugard’s play addresses remain relevant.
Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.
Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act plays through Sunday, September 17, 2017, and is presented by Blue Mercury Theatre at Independence Library – 18 South Seventh Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the Fringe box office at (215) 413-9006, or purchase them online.