A black man, a white woman and a cruelly indifferent cop — Theater Schmeater’s “Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act” is a dimly lit, mostly nude and chilling look at a love affair in South Africa.
The play, like most plays, begins in complete darkness.
But the darkness of “Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act” by South African writer Athol Fugard stays dark — with a few exceptions — while two apartheid-era lovers loll nude on a small stage while having an hourlong conversation about everything from racism to idle walks in the countryside.
The few exceptions to the darkness, coordinated by lighting designer Dave Hastings: a match lit by one lover, a romantic pool of moonlight on one corner of the small stage (where the actors occasionally stray and confirm the viewer’s suspicion that they are not, in fact, wearing underwear).
“Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act”
Theater Schmeater, 2125 Third Ave., Seattle; $24-$30 (800-838-3006 or schmee.org).
Those are the nice lights.
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Then come violent flashes from the camera of an invading policeman (Chris Shea) while he documents the crime of a black man (Darien Torbert) found naked in the bedroom of a white woman (Amanda Rae) and a roving searchlight from above, tracking the quivering lovers as they babble to themselves or a jury or both (it’s hard to tell) about the series of events that led them into each other’s arms.
Their affair began in a library. But apartheid, apparently, has no tolerance for a love forged between bookshelves.
Like Kafka’s “The Trial” and Marx’s “Capital,” the title of Fugard’s “Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act” has a cold, legalistic flintiness that instantly conveys the fact that real human beings — who might have enjoyed a cup of tea that morning, or washed their bodies in a nearby stream — suffer under the indifference of bureaucracies that were, ostensibly, developed to protect them.
Theater Schmeater’s production of “Arrest” is OK — just OK, though Rae and Torbert (co-directed by Emily Marie Harvey and Jordan-Michael Whidbey) give brave and bold performances. She’s nervous from the beginning, asking him to wait to leave the house so fewer people will notice. He has the bewildered and dismissive aspect of someone who’s thinking, but isn’t saying: “Lady, you’re afraid of punishment? I became a criminal simply by being born.”
Shea is the perfectly formalistic cop, and when he’s not terrifying the lovers with his camera flashes, he reads indifferently from a police dossier about his quiet investigation and surveillance of the lovers: “Exhibit A. We gained entry to the room by forcing the door, and put on the light.” Rae is pure fear, Torbert is torn between defiance and fear — though he becomes more cowering as the searchlight phase of the play continues — and Shea maintains the monstrously steady posture and voice of a well-tuned functionary.
For many U.S. theatergoers, Fugard is South Africa’s playwright-laureate of the horrors of apartheid — and how legally codified racism rips people apart, both in communities and within themselves.
In the 1960s, Fugard (who is white), co-founded the integrated Serpent Players, whose first theatrical venue was a former snake pit in a South African zoo, where they performed Niccolo Machiavelli’s bitter political satire “The Mandrake.”
The image is both haunting and gorgeous: black and white artists in South Africa defiantly performing a biting theatrical critique of capricious, murderous governments in an abandoned snake pit.
“Arrest” came a few years later, in 1972, exactly one decade before Fugard’s (perhaps) best-known apartheid play “Master Harold … and the Boys,” about an Afrikaner adolescent who psychologically crumbles under the realization that his two closest “friends,” the black family servants Willie and Sam, have been living under a violently cruel, racist and economically brutal regime that the kid never thought much about until one fateful, awful day.
Fugard’s “Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act” is less poignant — it feels like a sketch of his groping toward later, more powerful work. Plays like “Master Harold” are subtler, and more soul-scorching, vehicles for exploring the rifts between white people and black people who want to love each other, but have been conditioned into permanent alienation.
Fugard has written at least 34 plays, and not all of them are great. On the page, “Arrest” is one of the not-great ones. While “Master Harold …” cuts its audiences’ guts open by juxtaposing the reality of a violently racist society with sweet domestic humor, “Statements” is a slog through 100 minutes of unrelenting, sad sincerity.
It’s a dish made with a few missing spices.
That said, “Arrest” is a production worth seeing — not just because the two main actors are brave enough to sit skin-to-skin while talking about the color of those skins. “Arrest” should also be seen because Fugard’s greatest legacy to the world (so far) has been his insistence on staying in fighting trim, from the early Serpent Players to “Arrest” to his later works of greater genius.
This weekend brings the Seattle Art Fair, where wealthy art collectors and the general public will look at lesser works by famous artists like Pablo Picasso and Jasper Johns.
Like Picasso’s “Visage No. 54” (which you can admire at the New York-based ACA Galleries booth) Fugard’s “Arrest” isn’t the iconic work we’ll remember him for.
But contemplating a genius groping toward apotheosis is always rewarding.