The grim aftershocks of South Africa’s racist apartheid regime will be with us for some time to come, which makes the cautionary social relevance of Carole Eglash-Kosoff’s docudrama “The Human Spirit” beyond question. Nevertheless, this guest production at the Odyssey Theatre proves more history lesson than unique theatrical achievement, and expectations should be calibrated accordingly.
In Donald Squires’ earnest staging, 12 actors perform multiple roles drawn from the author’s 2010 book of recollections by South Africans who endured the de facto 50-year enslavement of the country’s black and colored population by a minority white government determined to hold on to power at all costs.
As these stories unfold on Gary Lee Reed’s meticulous shantytown set, the play celebrates the heroic grass-roots struggle of four women who brought medical, social and educational relief to the helpless children, disabled and elderly in some of the country’s most impoverished outlying townships. Operating with no support and often at great personal risk, this unlikely quartet of apolitical black and white crusaders known as the “Mamas” (Lisa Dobbyn, Allison Reeves, Rea Segoati, and Zuri Alexander) pave the way for international relief efforts that would improve millions of lives.
While performance quality varies among the large cast, the production vividly brings to light some of these under-recognized contributions, albeit with heavy reliance on summary exposition and first-person narrative better suited to reading than viewing. Condensing this much history onto the stage paints a starkly black-and-white moral canvas — apartheid’s atrocities should never be forgotten, but it’s misleading to represent virtually all South African whites as mustache-twirling sadists and rapists.
In comparison, by exploring the same historical currents in more skillful theatrical microcosm, the plays of Athol Fugard reveal far more disturbing insights into how fear and self-delusion can drive even civilized people to acquiesce to a morally repugnant political system.
“The Human Spirit,” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 29. $30. (323) 960-4412 or www.plays411.com/human. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.