PURE Theatre’s luminous production of The Island begins with Joseph Shabalala and his South African a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo asking, “How long? How long must I wait for you?”

Unanswered, that question hangs in the air around the two political prisoners in cell 44, John (Joseph Anthony Bird) and Winston (Johnny Heyward).

For long minutes, the play unfolds in silence as we follow the hardship of their daylight hours.

Heaving and huffing in sweat-soaked agony, John and Winston pointlessly shift stones in a quarry. Then they’re forced to run for miles, breathless and stumbling, along the beach. When the prison day finally ends, they shuffle back to their cell, done in, bleeding from wounds the warden’s lash has left upon them. Only then, in privacy, do the two men speak to one another.

Athol Fugard’s ’70s play, The Island, is a simple story. Two cellmates, one serving a life sentence, the other ten years, try to preserve their spirits and sanity in the grim confinement of an island prison modelled after Robben Island, the facility that once held Nelson Mandela and other black South African prisoners of conscience.

Together for three years in the same dank cell, John and Winston have bonded like brothers in arms and quarrel like an old married couple.

Winston is the lifer. Heyward gives his character weary humor and heartbreaking courage. When John elects him to play the female lead in a condensed version of the greek tragedy Antigone for an inmate show, Heyward’s Winston wrestles between trying to please his cellmate and avoiding public humiliation among his fellow prisoners. “I have no time for bullshit,” he protests. “I’m a man, not a bloody woman … Shit man, you want me to go out there tomorrow night and make a bloody fool of myself?”

John is the intellectual of the two, and Bird plays him with heartfelt ferocity. For John, staging Antigone is more than mere entertainment for his fellows, it is a means to continue fighting for their cause.

“Yes, they’ll laugh,” he tells Winston,” But who cares about that as long as they laugh in the beginning and listen at the end. That’s all we want them to do … listen at the end!”

To John, words matter. Words change things.

Mirroring the real-life experiences of the men who created it, The Island was a play that could not be published — or even written down — for fear that any such a document in apartheid-era South Africa would be tangible evidence that the state might use to bring charges against its authors, Fugard, Winston Ntshona, and John Kani. Instead, they committed the work to memory. PURE’s production of The Island makes that memory resonant and uplifting with these two fully-committed performances.

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