The Island, a play by Tony Award winners Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, is based on true events. It centers on the plight of two political prisoners, cellmates John and Winston (named after Kani and Ntshona), during the apartheid era in South Africa. The audience experiences four tightly structured scenes in a stark barbed wire setting over a period of ninety minutes. These formal elements are meant to parallel the oppressiveness of their prison system.
The play opens without dialogue, as John and Winston, sentenced to hard labor, go about their repetitive, injurious tasks. As they struggle to survive in this atmosphere of hate, they rely on each other for both care and protection, taking the audience with them on a cyclical journey of defiance, despair, and hope.
John encourages Winston to participate in a talent night at the prison. As they prepare to perform Antigone, the Greek tragedy by Sophocles, John receives news that his sentence has been reduced and that he’s soon to become free. Winston, however, is still serving a life sentence, and this difference introduces tensions into their friendship.
Antigone goes to her death for defying state laws and following her gods' laws instead. Until the end, she resolutely believes in the justness of her cause. Now, John’s choice of Antigone for the talent night is more than an act of defiance—it potentially threatens his release. Yet he and Winston, with paths to such different futures before them, still perform the play.
The Island concludes with John and Winston back at their daily tasks, quite literally running in circles. The audience is left to consider the costs of bravery and to wonder what it will take to achieve equality.