You’ve got to be carefully taught.
Children don’t recognize difference; adults do. Rogers and Hammerstein were looking for a way to address racial prejudice in their much-lauded musical South Pacific without coming off as communists (not good in the late 1940s), and the song “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” addresses bigotry head on, reflecting the sentiments of the characters Nellie Forbush and Lt. John Cable. We aren’t born to “hate and fear,” but society creates the atmosphere in which we learn to do just that.
Meeting only three years after the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, Amelia (Magan Wiles) and Andile (Eric J. Connors) are still divided by the color line (perhaps the meaning of the blood red yarn borders created by the two throughout) but they don’t realize that because they’re only 8 years old. They, or at least, he, recognizes their social differences—she lives in the fancy neighborhood in the house next door to where his grandmother works as a servant—but I’m not sure he’s thought about it much. Nurse Nellie and Lt. Cable reconcile their feelings and love wins. But in our play, reconciliation can only come in the characters’ minds. Is this progress? No.
It doesn’t help that apartheid sanctified and legalized institutional racism until the 1990s, and in that sense, was behind the U.S. socially, but was racism really abolished by the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Considering recent events, it was not. It was merely driven underground, and the events of the last few years including Ferguson prove we are still much divided. That is what makes this particular show timely and relevant. We are so separated by our differences now that we would have to be in comas like Amelia and Andile to get back to a time of innocence and allow love to win again.
Joanna Ruth Evans, a young South African playwright and actor, has created a lot of space for her characters to devise their own world. The “South African experience” has informed much of her work, and she seems to view her actors as collaborators in their own creation. Amelia (called after the aviator Earhart) and Andile (“they have extended” in Zulu) develop a friendship when he kicks a soccer ball over her fence accidentally. She is a lonely only child with a dog (that Wiles pantomimes effectively) and Andile fears the dog, for good reason it will be shown later. Obsessed with flight, she has “flown” her bicycle off a cliff 10 years after the brief relationship with Andile, and he has landed in prison.
They meet in each other’s minds, having gone into concussion at the same moment, so the universe collaborates here, as well. A surrealistic memory piece ensues where it is both 1997 and 2007 at once. The set by Michael Heil is comprised of bicycle parts, strobe lights, and sound; sound is all around us. Costumes are neutral beige tones, and Laura Hanson has credit for creating the compromise between brown and white. The “Soundscape” artist is David A.N. Jackson, and he’s one of the hardest working men in show business. It is sometimes difficult to keep watching the action because his effects are such an integral part of it. Philip Boehm directs with his usual careful pacing. This is a short show—only about 65 minutes—but it doesn’t seem rushed at all.
There are too many production credits to list them all, so suffice to say that everyone has done his or her work admirably, especially the cast in this surreal memory piece. You have one more weekend to see it. | Andrea Braun
You may contact www.upstreamtheater.org for more information. The Year of the Bicycle runs through Feb 11, 2017.