There’s a totally smashing production by TheatreFIRST at the Berkeley City Club which you need to rush over to see. Although it’s been extended through May 9, that still doesn’t give you much time. Missing the opportunity to see this South African work would be a definite loss. (We deeply regret that a communications failure kept us from reviewing the play earlier in the season). Mooi Street Moves isn’t produced in the U.S. too often. The only previous presentation here was in 1993 at the MetroStage in Alexandria, Virgina. In any case, it is hard to believe that it could be done with greater skill and talent than what we can see in this sterling production.
The title doesn’t communicate much to an American audience, but the play itself is both totally comprehensible and moving. Set in the period of social chaos surrounding the end of apartheid, two extraordinarily gifted actors completely grasp their roles in the unexpected relationship that develops between a bright black hustler and the pathetically child-like white intruder into his life.
David Skillman seems born to play Stix, the street-wise resident of a chaotic apartment in a formerly white middle-class neighborhood. Only the fact of Skillman’s impressive and varied resume keeps one from thinking that this has to be the role of his lifetime. It’s a part that requires a huge range, and he does it flawlessly.
Into Stix’ apartment, and life, stumbles the naïve and not-too-smart Henry Stone, looking for his older brother, a “businessman” who lived in the apartment back in the years before apartheid ended. Henry is vague about the exact nature of his brother’s “business,” but has absolute faith that he will be able and willing to start Henry off into some kind of business success.
It seems quite typical of Henry that it never occurred to him to write first before setting off to visit a brother he hasn’t seen for years; nor is it surprising that Henry arrives dead broke, having lost his meager bank account to a crude confidence trick that he doesn’t even realize was dishonest.
Joseph Foss’ portrayal of the vulnerable and childlike Henry is, at times, heartbreaking. Through much of the first act, he clutches his pathetic bag of possessions to his chest, fearfully determined not to lose the last few items he can claim as his own. As he gradually figures out that his brother is gone and he is alone in an incomprehensible world, his fear is almost tangible.
It is a profoundly moving performance.
The play is set in the chaos that followed Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. Although political changes were made, and apartheid rejected, there remained huge areas of social behavior that were not addressed. Areas of housing that were historically white were literally abandoned and squatters moved into places where there were no utilities, no managers, and no safety.
Maybe crime increased; it depends upon who you ask. Equally so, there are people who want to say that the period of disruption is over, but when the playwright, Paul Slabolepszy, revised the play for a performance in 2000, he made no significant changes to the text.
What we have here is a brilliant presentation of a bright man Stix, who has made the best of his situation, becoming a skillful hustler and an easy manipulator of the system his world presents. His kindness to the vulnerable Henry, and his efforts to teach him street survival skills, is touching and convincing.
A word about the set: It seems quite possible that the fairly staid City Club may never recover from the extraordinary outpouring of sheer stuff that the gifted Christina La Sala has used to create a convincing presentation of a street hustler’s collection of goodies to sell. Add to that the convincingly questionable standards of housekeeping, and the effects are awesome.
This is a memorable production of a memorable play.
TheatreFIRST’s Mooi Street Moves by Paul Slabolepsky plays through May 9, Thurs.-Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 3 p.m. at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant St. For tickets and reservations call 436-5085.