Charleston is twice-blessed at this time of year. The Spoleto Festival USA may present most of the "big-ticket" items, but the Piccolo Spoleto Festival, produced and directed by the city of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs, is equally capable of startling and capturing a visitor.
Piccolo Spoleto calls itself the "official outreach festival to Spoleto Festival USA" and it prides itself on featuring artists from the Southeastern United States "in all areas of performing, literary and visual arts
— classical music, jazz, dance, theatre, poetry readings, children's activities and more."
On Wednesday night at Circular Congregational Church's Lance Hall, I attended a smart, taut, powerful performance of "The Island" (1973), directed by Charleston native Dana Friedman and produced by PURE Theatre, a local company now in its fifth season.
The setting is Robben Island, the isolated prison just off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa, where Nelson Mandela, among many less-celebrated others, was incarcerated as a political dissident during the long years of state-enforced apartheid. Athol Fugard, a white South African playwright, joined forces with two black actors, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, to create a one-act play about two Robben Island inmates who have decided to stage their own performance of Sophocles' "Antigone."
"Antigone" was presented in Charleston as recently as last year, in the Seamus Heaney reconstitution called "The Burial at Thebes." It is the agonized study of a young woman's determination to seek proper burial of her brother, against the will of the state and at the risk of her own life.
Fugard, in a 2003 interview with The New York Times, called "Antigone" the most powerful political play ever written. "It is the first play that raised the issue of standing up and being counted in a situation that involved oppression and injustice. The entire time we were working on it, the government was harassing us, barging into rehearsals and confiscating manuscripts. Several members of the group were arrested and sent to Robben Island on trumped-up charges."
"During the German occupation of France," Fugard continued, "(Playwright) Jean Anouilh produced a version of 'Antigone' in Paris. In an exact parallel to the situation on Robben Island, the first five rows of German jackbooted officers admired what they thought was a straightforward piece of classical culture, but the French audience behind them knew what it was about."
In a tribute to his collaborators, Fugard named the characters in "The Island" John and Winston. Kani and Ntshona played the roles for more than 30 years, over the course of a period which saw the dismantling of apartheid and the installation of Nelson Mandela as the president of a new South Africa. The two won joint Tony Awards in 1975 for their participation.
Joseph Anthony Byrd and Johnny Heyward, young, vivid charismatic actors who have appeared in plays in New York and Chicago, took on the roles of John and Winston for PURE Theater. I had some initial difficulty making out their carefully coached African dialect — and acoustics in Lance Hall are not its finest quality — but soon adapted and found myself caught up in the eternal drama of the play, which has been translated into more than 30 languages, performed by imprisoned drug offenders in Florida and presented in Israel and Russia with the main characters played by Palestinian actors. One left Lance Hall (walking, for the second time in one evening, directly over the tombs of long-dead Charlestonians) with the fear that "The Island" will remain sadly relevant.
Last night marked the final performance of "The Island," but PURE Theatre has three other shows in Piccolo Spoleto: a historical drama titled "The Gentleman Pirate," which closes tonight; a political satire titled "The Emperor is Naked?" that opens on June 2, and a musical called "The Last Five Years" that runs through Saturday.
Looking ahead to other Piccolo Spoleto attractions, I can recommend an Early Music Series that takes place daily at the First (Scots) Presbyterian Church, coordinated by Steve Rosenberg. There is a Young Artists Series at the Simons Center for the Arts Recital Hall that takes place every day from noon to 1. The "L'Organo Recital Series," sponsored by the Charleston Chapter of the American Guild of Organists every morning at 10, is a little more elusive, as its venue changes daily. There are musical theater tributes to artists ranging from Johnny Cash to Eubie Blake, Bobby Darin to Sophie Tucker. Pick up one of the Piccolo Spoleto brochures that can be found in most hotels and restaurants, and prepare to be overwhelmed.