Review of "A Lesson From Aloes" at Z Space

Jordan Nickels

  • San Francisco Theatre Critic

A country should always learn from their past, but what if there is something to learn from the history of a country and ocean away? Z Space presents their production of A Lesson From Aloes by Athol Fugard, which examines an era of racial tension and oppressive government in South Africa that is unfortunately familiar to issues we are facing today.

A Lesson From Aloes is set in 1963 in a white district of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, a society caught in the grip of a police state and the effect it has on individuals. Piet, a liberal Afrikaner, who is actively involved in anti-apartheid activity, and his wife, Gladys, who is recovering from a nervous breakdown brought about by a police raid on their home, are waiting for dinner guests, Piet’s friend Steve Daniels and his family, who are black. The play takes an interesting look at loyalty, survival, privilege under the iron grip of a tyrannical government.

From left: Piet (Victor Talmadge) and Gladys (Werndy vanden Heuvel) hear about the limitations endured by Steve (Adrian Roberts) in "A Lesson From Aloes" at Z Below. (Photo: David Allen)

From left: Piet (Victor Talmadge) and Gladys (Werndy vanden Heuvel) hear about the limitations endured by Steve (Adrian Roberts) in "A Lesson From Aloes" at Z Below. (Photo: David Allen)

The production was well cast. Adrian Roberts (Steve Daniels) has an incredible spirit and hit every moment whether friendly towards Piet or making a point about his situation. Wendy Vanden Heuvel brought layers of complexity to the character of Gladys, you really saw the progression of her unraveling as the play progressed. I commend the creative team for really immersing the audience into the atmosphere of South Africa, especially with the set, designed by Deb O, and the sound, designed by Cliff Caruthers. I thought the mood and tone of the setting really created a balance to the tension and chaos happening between the characters of this play.

The first act was slow, purposed in creating a lot of buildup to Steve Daniels’ arrival in the second act. Gladys brought lots of intensity and underlying conflict, but it wasn’t enough to help the pacing of this production. However, adding Steve Daniels to the mix and reaching the climax of the dinner party, is where this play finds its stride.  There are a lot of secrets and questions withheld from the audience that bubbles up towards the end, especially involving Piet. At it’s the core, this play puts in perspective a critical moment in South African history, which plays into a long-standing issue in race relations in this part of the world. However, it’s not a history many other people in this world know about, while it’s so relevant to issues of race in our culture in the present.

A Lesson From Aloes showcases what it means to have white privilege, and how we must learn to understand the plights of people that may not look or act like us, by taking a look through the lens in which they see the world. Unfortunately we are not all treated the same, and while this play doesn’t provide a lot of answers, it’s a perfect example to start of the conversation of where to go next in terms of race in our country.

Jordan Nickels is a playwright and dramaturg, originally from the Midwest, with a Bachelor of Science in Theatrical Studies from Ball State University. He previously worked with Nashville Children’s Theatre, Goodspeed Opera House, Florida Studio Theatre, and The Walt Disney Company. He also served as a Blog Contributor and Managing Editor for over two years at Camp Broadway in New York City. Jordan currently resides in San Francisco, CA and works as a Development Assistant at American Conservatory Theater. Website:, Twitter and Instagram: @jnickels8.