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By Dalt Wonk

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  Playing the race card" is a phrase we have heard a lot in the media over the last few years. It is used to characterize that strategy by which an African-American who is on the defensive in some difficult or compromising situation attempts to swing the focus of the argument back to racial inequality.

"Using code words" is the equivalent media phrase for the parallel strategy used by Caucasians when racial prejudice is covertly summoned in order to win a point or gain popular support.

Both of these maneuvers require a broad stroke. "Race" is painted in emotionally charged and ill-defined terms. "Them" and "us" are both presented in striking caricatures, easy to recognize but having curiously little relation to real life as it is actually lived. The effect of this simplification is somewhat like hearing the national anthem. Your heart beating in wild exaltation, you grab the blunderbuss off the wall (metaphorically speaking) and rush to the barricade to repulse the enemy.

What is bypassed in this scenario, of course, is that other god-given organ of apprehension: the brain. The difficult, often confusing struggle to comprehend a complex situation in all its complexity goes out the window.

South African playwright Athol Fugard, writing in the midst of extreme racial inequality, manages somehow to insist on the complex and often paradoxical nature of the truth. As a result, his modestly conceived little dramas wreak havoc with the complacent categories into which our attitudes about race get unconsciously catalogued.

And in doing so, he strikes a chord that is deeper than race, for beyond the problem of racial injustice stands the more fundamental problem of injustice itself. Similarly, beyond the problems of trust, love and betrayal between individuals of different backgrounds stand the problems of trust, love and betrayal, period.

Fugard's My Children, My Africa, currently on the boards at the Contemporary Arts Center, is set in a South African township in 1984.

Mr. M, an idealistic teacher at a black school, has organized a debate with the neighboring white school. Isabel -- a spirited, free-thinking, middle-class white girl -- wins the debate and, in the process, becomes friends with her opponent, Thami. He is a talented and engaging black student who seems in many ways to be Isabel's male counterpart -- except that he has grown bitter and angry because of the glaring injustice under which he and his people live.

Thami is Mr. M's protege -- his substitute son, the instrument through which the teacher's ascetic devotion will be justified and fulfilled.

The debate that begins the play concerns the role of men and women in emerging Africa. Thami argues for traditional female subservience; paradoxically, however, he accepts Isabel's assertive candor quite easily. And the traditional attitudes of his teacher, who expects unquestioning obedience from his protege, are what fuel the play's central conflict.

Mr. M lets Isabel and Thami form a team and compete in a national literary quiz. Thami, however, has joined with the activist movement. There is a boycott of the school. Police repression and violence ensue. Mr. M is horrified that education -- the center of his faith and his life's calling -- is being trampled amid the uprising. He goes to the police and gives them the names of some of the organizers.

When a mob approaches the school to burn it down, Thami warns the teacher to flee. The young man is so conflicted, however, he cannot -- even in this extremity -- tell Mr. M how much he cares for him. And the teacher rushes off into the crowd, defiantly ringing the school bell.

The cast, under the direction of Raymond Vrazel Jr., brings these likable, ill-fated characters believably to life.

As Mr. M, Ron Dortch projects a mercurial warmth and optimistic idealism. We understand why his character cannot bend with the times, and we mourn for his tragedy. Lauren Levy creates an appealing Isabel, who is able to walk the minefield of racial misunderstandings guided by her precocious, fierce and redeeming candor. And Lloyd Joseph Martin's Thami is a sensitive, personable youth, driven to make hard and heart-wrenching decisions as part of his "coming of age."

My Children, My Africa is a tragic and disturbing story told with an eloquent simplicity, and it lingers in your mind long after the house lights have come up.

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