There’s a deep, intense power in staged prison dramas. There’s an inescapable emotional gravity in sitting down in the front row of a small theater to watch people play prisoners. For a few brief moments, actors and audience alike are tourists in a place that is all too well-known to a huge, hidden worldwide population of incarceration. For a few moments everyone in a theatre feels some shadow of imprisonment. Milwaukee Chamber Theatre brings a bit of that feeling to the small screen this month with its production of The Island: Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona’s two-prisoner apartheid-era drama.
DiMonte Henning and Sherrick Robinson play Winston and John: a couple of South African prisoners who have been sharing a life without freedom for many, many years. John is working with Winston to develop a theatrical staging of Antigone. Winston is reluctant to study for a role as the title character. He’s afraid of looking ridiculous playing a woman. He’s also serving a life sentence. John believes in the power of theater and the importance of the story. Prior to the performance, John has been granted a release. The two are forced to come to terms with the fundamental nature of art and prison prior to the performance.
The absence of the live stage is felt with particularly intense depth in a prison drama. As much as an audience might want to feel the pull of the emotional gravity, Winston and John are imprison on a glowing rectangle for 01:15:37 seconds that can be paused, rewound and scrubbed through. There’s a maddeningly comfortable distance between audience, actors and characters. Director Mikael Burke keeps the production stark and simple. It’s a largely bare set. The editing is simple. The drama is right there in the center of the screen for the entire run of the show.
Robinson is engagingly passionate as a prisoner restlessly trying to keep himself active. Henning plays a man far more existentially adrift who knows exactly where he is going to be the rest of his life. Henning and Robinson do a remarkably vivid job of portraying a couple of people who know each other extremely well. The deep and intimate familiarity between characters who have known each other for years can be extremely difficult to bring across. Henning and Robinson manage a very intricate portrayal of a couple of guys who know each other well enough that each one seems to know exactly what the other isn’t thinking. That level of intimacy can be a challenge for any pair of actors. More than merely working well together, each actor has an opportunity for solitude onstage that further defines the external desolation of each character in a thoroughly satisfying drama.
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of The Island is available through March 28th. For more information, visit Milwaukee Chamber online.