Photo of Ronald L. Conner and Kai A. Ealy by Michael Brosliow.

With a full house and a rapt audience, opening night for The Island was a success! Attendees were captivated, and reviewers' praise was nothing short of effusive, calling this production "profoundly moving," "one of the finest anti-apartheid plays ever penned," and "courageous." We're immensely proud of this production, both for its message and for the fact that it marks Associate Artistic Director Gabrielle Randle-Bent's first solo-directed show at Court, and this is one you won't want to miss.

Join John and Winston. Fight for justice. Get your tickets to The Island today.


“One of the finest anti-apartheid plays ever penned...Ealy and Conner both dive courageously into the quotidian lives of their characters and their relationship is strong enough here to explore one of the play’s most important themes: the skill of the apartheid regime at turning one prisoner against another...The note of hope in this play, and it is rightly centered in this unpretentious and powerful production, is that the human spirit is far harder to defeat than the body. This was a prescient theme, given that this prison’s most famous resident went on to become president of a changed South Africa.”

— Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune, 3.5 out of 4 stars 


"Exquisitely paced and intellectually explosive, The Island at Court Theatre is a profoundly moving work of art. From the first moment, this production (directed by Gabrielle Randle-Bent, Court’s associate artistic director) seizes the audience and thrusts them into the world of two political prisoners of apartheid and doesn’t let go, even long after the play (written by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona) has ended...The Island is a riveting, philosophically sophisticated play that is a must-see for fans of meaty theater."

Chicago Reader, Reader Recommended


"Brotherhood, tyranny, unjust incarceration, revolution — there’s much to unpack thematically in The Island, but Randle-Bent propels the dialogue with a clarity that shines like a knife and an urgency that can’t be denied...Creativity, solidarity and honor can endure, even in places designed to crush them. In Court’s production, that endurance is grounded in the herculean, intensely physical performances by Conner and Ealy. Movement director Jacinda Ratcliffe powers the production with grueling physicality requiring some serious athleticism. Conner and Ealy deliver it with prowess while still being wholly believable as prisoners battered within an inch of their lives."

Chicago Sun-Times, 3.5 out of 4 stars


"Everything is top notch in this performance...The real power behind this great production was the new Associate Artistic Director Gabrielle Randle-Bent...She brings out the humanity between these two great actors. You can feel the empathy that she wanted the audience to feel. She brings the authors, John and Winston, to new heights. Athol Fugard wrote the words to the play, but John and Winston are telling the story of their life."

Around the Town Chicago, 5 out of 5 stars

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Court's Properties Manager (and general stage wizard) Lara Musard provides a brief overview of some of the props that enrich The Island. Read on to learn how she makes the world of the play real, specific, and visually striking.

Robben Island and The Prison Cell

Photograph of Robben Island courtesy of Lara Musard

Robben Island was a common stopping point for passing ships in the 16th and 17th centuries. After early efforts at settlement, it was made a Dutch, and then a British, penal colony. The island housed a leper colony from 1846 to 1931, and those judged "insane" were also sent there.

The island is oval shaped, two miles long north–south, and one mile wide. It’s flat and only a few meters above sea level as a result of an ancient erosion event. After fortification in 1961, the South African Apartheid government opened a maximum-security prison for political prisoners and convicted criminals, including Nelson Mandela and many other anti-Apartheid activists, until 1996 after the end of Apartheid.

In Court’s production of The Island, Winston’s and John’s cell is represented by reproductions of the standard 1973 items that would have been found within. Shown here:  Sleeping mat, two blankets, a bucket to be used for water and waste, and a mug.

Photograph and props by Lara Musard

John’s Letter From His Wife, Princess

All prisoners' letters – received and sent – were strictly controlled by the Censor’s office.  The Censor would cut or black out any content that was deemed undesirable. In 1973, prisoners could only read and receive letters written in the official languages recognized by the state – either Afrikaans or English.  Communications in other regional languages were forbidden, including Xhosha, the dialect spoken by both Winston and John.

Antigone’s Nail Necklace

In very harsh conditions of extreme heat and eye-damaging reflective lime, prisoners were forced to perform hard labor in the island’s quarries. 

This is where John was able to find materials for the Antigone costumes, including nails for Winston’s Antigone costume necklace.


The Island is on stage at Court Theatre from November 11 – December 4, 2022 → Get Tickets.

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Scenic and costume research for THE ISLAND
Photograph by Joe Mazza.

As part of his creative process, Athol Fugard - one of the co-creators of The Island, alongside John Kani and Winston Ntshona - found inspiration from Polish theorist Jerzy Grotowski. Grotowski was a firm believer that "theatre [should be] stripped of 'nonessentials' (costumes, props lights, musics, even the playwright)...and left with the one absolutely necessary element: the living actor in [face]-to-face communion with the spectator."

This notion could be considered one of the foundational tenets of devised theatre and - perhaps most importantly - one of the foundational tenets of The Island. As we re-create (rather than re-stage) this production for our own audiences, costume designer Raquel Adorno and scenic designer Yeaji Kim adopt a similar approach, favoring simplicity; symbolism; and design elements that are gestural, atmospheric, and functional.

Check out this behind-the-scenes look at Raquel and Yeaji's designs, the history, and the cultural context transporting audiences to The Island.

Costume Design

Raquel: Growing up in the 1980s, when Apartheid was still around, and then in the 90s, as it was being abolished, I spent my Sunday mornings watching the news on PBS with my dad; my father was an activist and educator who followed the world news closely. He never shielded me from the horrors of the news.

Black and white costume rendering for John (played by Kai Ealy) with costume notes on the left side of the illustration
Costume rendering for John by Raquel Adorno.

Quite the contrary, he taught me that the only way to change the world was to open your eyes and see what was happening around you. He taught me not to look away from what made me uncomfortable and - as a direct result of that exposure - I used photography, documentaries, news reports, and articles from South Africa during Apartheid as the inspiration for the design of The Island.

Gabby: And these photos were so interesting. For example, throughout most of Nelson Mandela's sentence on Robben Island, prisoners had to wear shorts. South Africa is a part of both the Afrikaner and Dutch-German tradition, but it's also part of the English tradition, and so - in a very European way - shorts are what children wear. For many years, any photo of any of the prisoners, especially images of Nelson Mandela, never showed the prisoners' legs because the Apartheid government knew that there would be violence in the streets if people knew that these prisoners were being degraded and debased as boys.

Raquel: Right, exactly. We spent a lot of time looking at photos of Nelson Mandela during his time there, and documentary footage depicting the stories of other prisoners. Looking at these source images was hugely helpful, and we hope to recreate these uniforms as accurately as possible, while taking some liberties with color and fabrics to accommodate the athleticism of this production and overall mise en scène.

A white room with red sand on the floor and against the walls serves as a backdrop; in front, we see two black and white costume renderings of the characters in Xhosa garb and two colored renderings of them in their beige prison uniforms.
Costume renderings for John and Winston by Raquel Adorno.

An important part of this play is John and Winston's production of Antigone, so that adds an additional layer to the costuming decisions. What does John's Creon look like? What does Winston's Antigone wear? What would these two men have access to that they could fashion into costumes? How would the history of this land inform what a ruler looks like, and what a princess might look like?

As part of my research process, I watched quite a few documentaries about Robben Island, and the imprisonment and deaths of the Xhosa chiefs haunted me.

A man and a woman stand facing one another wearing traditional Xhosa garb.
Inspiration photograph for the costume design; photograph curtesy of Raquel Adorno.

Gabby: For context, Robben Island - throughout history, but especially during colonial history - was many different things. It was a leper colony, and it also was the prisoner of war camp for Xhosa chiefs who fought the settler invaders. So, as Raquel says, our attempt to speak to that history is represented in the costuming of John and Winston's Antigone and Creon. Antigone's their approximation of what royalty looks like. What I love about Raquel's designs - and just how thoughtful she is, when approaching dramaturgy in general - is that, when John and Winston perform Antigone at the end of the play, their version of royalty is not Greek royalty and it's not European royalty. It is Xhosa royalty. They use their blankets, they use their cups, and they transform the bits of rags in mopheads into a Xhosa princess and a Xhosa chief, rather than how we might imagine a princess and king. And by doing so, we're put us in conversation with the folks who have been imprisoned on that island before we meet John and Winston.

Raquel: That's the goal for the designs of Antigone and for Creon: evoke this persecuted royalty as a sign of both remembrance and respect.

Scenic Design

Yeaji: When Gabby and I discuss this production, she always stresses that it's not a prison play. It's not about the prison. It's about the relationship between these two characters; the love and care. So, to highlight that bond, we wanted to create a room where you watch them - their movement, their actions, and their words - rather than a literal depiction of a cell on Robben Island. We were looking to create something that conveyed the sense that these two men are at the edge of the world, they're totally isolated.

A model of a white wall; red sand against the wall and curving around front; a large, white slab, and two cut-out male figurines.
Photograph by Joe Mazza; set model by Yeaji Kim.
A blue sky with a gray wall in front, with barbed wire; a large tower rises up from the wall.
Inspiration photograph for the scenic design; photograph curtesy of Yeaji Kim.

When you research photos of Robben Island, you'll see it's a flat island. It's quiet and peaceful, in its own way, but escape is impossible because of the currents and sea turmoil. So, in our set, we made sure the walls aren't incredibly high because the walls aren't the only barrier. We wanted everything to be more simplistic, more gestural. The whole stage is the island, so to speak, and there's a wall in the back with a window opening. The wall represents Apartheid and racism, generally speaking, and the window gives a sense of what's beyond this island, the future, but it's small - there's no hope. It's despair.

The labor is really the central action in this play. Prisoners had to work in the quarry for years and years - it's incredibly tiresome - so labor is a really important element to this show and the design. We have a joke, actually, that it's the third character in the show. This giant slab is our focal point and, depending on how it tilts (forward or backwards), it can become a burden or it can give you agency.

A black stage with a white light and smoke in the top right corner; downstage, a white slab tilts forward at a steep angle and a man leans against it.
Inspiration photograph for the set design; photograph curtesy of Yeaji Kim.

When the audience walks in and sees the stone slab, it'll be in a flat position like a table. That's the representation of the cell. Around the cell, outside and around, represents what they do: the outdoor labor with the sand.

When we go back inside the prison, in the scene transitions, the slab will be tilting backwards to give a roof and we'll return to the sense of the physical cell. In the later part of the production, when John and Winston put on Antigone, the stone slab will tilt so they can lean against it; this is an opportunity to show their agency in portraying the characters of Creon and Antigone.

And finally, at the end, we'll go back to the flat position where we started the show. Throughout the rehearsal process, we're going to play and use movement to explore how the central action can interact with this mechanism.

I'm super excited, and I'm looking forward to what we'll create together.


Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona’s The Island is on stage at Court Theatre from November 11 – December 4, 2022 → Get Tickets.

Source: Berner, Robert L. “Athol Fugard and the Theatre of Improvisation.” Books Abroad 50, no. 1 (1976): 81–84. https://doi.org/10.2307/40130109.

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Photo of Ronald L. Conner and Kai Ealy sitting on a rock next to Lake Michigan at Promontory Point (Joe Mazza)
Ronald L. Conner and Kai A. Ealy by Joe Mazza.

Check out these resources and classroom activities to prepare students to see The Island! We're thrilled to offer them as a complement to our Student Matinee program, and we hope they enrich your experience of this production.

Background

Classroom Activities

Articles

Photos and Videos

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzWuoI-tchc&t=5s
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QaEb-A-ttZo
https://www.youtube.com/embed/TlhFCegHVD0
https://www.youtube.com/embed/CYdfLNudlCo
https://www.youtube.com/embed/CcU8_ffWY2s

Feedback

We'd love to hear what you think of our Learning Guides! Please complete this brief survey to share your feedback.

LEARNING GUIDE SURVEY

Questions, comments, or concerns? Please contact Kate Wiseman, Education Programs Manager, at katevwiseman@uchicago.edu
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A blue sky with clouds in the background, as one man looks to his left, while another man looks directly at the camera.
Ronald L. Conner and Kai A. Ealy by Joe Mazza.

In this activity, students will have the opportunity to select three discussion questions they find intriguing and discuss each in a small group. If desired, a written response to one discussion question of each student’s choice may be incorporated.

ROUND ROBIN DISCUSSION ACTIVITY



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A blue sky with clouds in the background, as one man looks to his left, while another man looks directly at the camera.
Ronald L. Conner and Kai A. Ealy by Joe Mazza.

This Chalk Talk will help students begin thinking about some of the themes and ideas explored in The Island.

CHALK TALK ACTIVITY



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A blue sky with clouds in the background, as one man looks to his left, while another man looks directly at the camera.
Ronald L. Conner and Kai A. Ealy by Joe Mazza.

These vocabulary activities will help students develop a deep understanding of the word "colonialism." They may be used together or separately. 

FRAYER MODEL VOCABULARY ACTIVITY



LIST, GROUP, LABEL VOCABULARY ACTIVITY



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Kai A. Ealy and Ronald L. Conner by Joe Mazza.
Kai A. Ealy and Ronald L. Conner by Joe Mazza.

These texts and resources explore the history behind The Island, its dramaturgy, and design. Take a look and learn more!

History

Dramaturgy

Design

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In The Island, John and Winston are rehearsing a 2-man version of Antigone. Check out this background on Antigone or the 2-minute video summary of the play below:

https://youtu.be/Lak0__1Hqwc

Video from OpenLearn from The Open University

Pre-show Prediction

How do you predict the themes and plot of Antigone may play into the story and themes of The Island

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synopsis

Ronald L. Conner and Kai A. Ealy by Joe Mazza.
Ronald L. Conner and Kai A. Ealy by Joe Mazza.

John and Winston are political prisoners on South Africa’s infamous Robben Island, spending their days toiling at grueling, futile tasks in the prison’s quarry. At night, they secretly rehearse a two-man version of Antigone and find solace and strength in their burgeoning friendship. The Island is at once a sobering glimpse into the social, physical, and psychological wounds of Apartheid; a lesson in the complex work of liberation; and a testament to the transformative power of theatre.

Characters

Antigone: History and Summary

In The Island, John and Winston are rehearsing a 2-man version of Antigone. Check out this background on Antigone or the 2-minute video summary of the play below:

https://youtu.be/Lak0__1Hqwc
Video from OpenLearn from The Open University

Pre-show Prediction

How do you predict the themes and plot of Antigone may play into the story and themes of The Island

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Donate Tickets

Productions

Learning Guide: THE ISLAND

Find resources for educators to prepare for, and debrief, the production of THE ISLAND with students.

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