We are in a library, dark and quiet. A black man and a white woman, totally nude, are curled on a blanket in each other's arms. Their clothes are strewn alongside the blanket. Behind them are scattered books and a silver tea set.
But the civilized setting and the tenderness of the opening scene belie what is to come. This is, in the context of 1960s South Africa, a forbidden love story — a union between a white librarian, Frieda Joubert, and a teacher we're told is "colored," or of mixed race. Teacher Errol Philander also happens to be married — a complication that deepens the lovers' need for secrecy and deception, exacerbates the tensions between them, and arguably muddies our sympathies.
The celebrated South African playwright Athol Fugard's one-act play Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act is part drama and part denunciation of the country's race-based apartheid laws — reminiscent not just of Nazi Germany but of the mid-20th-century American South — that for decades made sex between people of different backgrounds and complexions a crime.
The principal reason to see this one-hour show — which features full-frontal nudity in an intimate space — is Brandon Pierce, the stunning actor who plays the erudite and tormented Philander. Drawn to the library by his need for books for a correspondence course, Pierce's Philander is dazzled by the knowledge he finds there. But he is also haunted by his betrayal of his family, and then shattered by his arrest.
The older white librarian (Megan McDermott), lonely and seemingly devoid of the prejudices of the era, welcomes him in, and their friendship turns into something more. McDermott has her moments, particularly in a monologue that constitutes her statement to the authorities after the two are caught in the act. But the chemistry between the two lovers never really sparks.
The play itself is a bit of a muddle, seguing as it does between the lovers' intimacies and quarrels and their police statements. But director Leigh E. Bicica (with an assist from lighting designer Eric Baker) skillfully uses lighting and sound to stoke menace, and Jay Stratton adds to the effect with his offstage voicing of a police detective who represents the intrusive authoritarian state. Dialect coach Matthew Hultgren also merits a mention.
At a recent performance, Statements ended abruptly, without the actors' reemerging to take a well-deserved bow. The lights simply came on, and the audience found itself alone and puzzled in an actual branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, not quite knowing whether it was time to leave.
Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act. Through Sept. 24, presented by Blue Mercury Theatre at Independence Library, 18 S. Seventh St., for FringeArts. Tickets: $15. Information: 215-413-1318 or fringearts.com.