In what he says may be his last play, South African playwright Athol Fugard explores his characters’ fear, humiliation and desperation, as he has in such well-known anti-apartheid works as Blood Knot and MASTER HAROLD … and the Boys. But this time, a white woman, post apartheid, shares those emotions.
The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, directed by Fugard at the Pershing Square Signature Center through June 7, is a modest, almost oblique but ultimately explosive look at the new South Africa. It begins as the story of real-life “outsider artist” Nukain Mabuza, who spent decades painting flowers on boulders on the farm on which he worked as a laborer. But Fugard’s play only borrows some elements from the actual life of Mabuza, who reportedly committed suicide in 1981. Fugard has told interviewers that he put the script in a bottom drawer a few years ago, until (prodded by a deadline from Signature), he realized recently how he could refashion it with a second act.
In the first act, Fugard imagines Nukain (Leon Addison Brown) as an old man faced with the last unpainted boulder on the farm. With him is an 11-year-old boy Bokkie (Caleb McLaughlin), who is his helper. Bokkie doesn’t understand why Nukain is so hesitant to get started. The old man admits he is frightened of what he calls the Big One. He wants his painting on this rock to be different. He wants it to outlive him, to be proof that he existed. He wants it to tell his story. Suddenly, he is inspired… until the farmer’s wife Elmarie Kleynhans (Bianca Amato) arrives with a plateful of leftovers for their lunch.
It is a testament both to Fugard’s writing and especially to the first-rate acting that, though Elmarie is God-fearing and well-meaning, we see a shift in Nukain’s demeanor, and experience the subtle slights in the interaction, sensing the lifelong humiliation that comes with being a black man in apartheid South Africa.
In Act II, it is some 20 year later, after the end of apartheid, and Bokkie, now using his real name Jonathan Sejake (Sahr Ngaujah), returns to the rock as a man in his thirties, with a knapsack full of paint cans, aiming to restore that last painting, which has faded into oblivion. Elmarie greets him with a gun.
I’m reluctant to give away the plot, other than to say there is not much plot to give away. What follows is a fascinating lesson in differing perspectives. Both people are angry and resentful; both are also wedded in their way to the land. And Fugard makes us empathize with both of them, helping us to see the connection that they themselves might prefer to deny.
All four actors invest a passion in their roles that makes it hard for the audience to stay aloof. Thirteen-year-old Caleb McLaughlin, portraying 11-year-old Bokkie, is almost frightening in his tear-shedding intensity. Bianca Amato effects an impressive transformation from the privileged, patronizing farmer’s wife of Act I to the tired, frightened survivor of Act II.
The program for the play includes a glossary of some 40 non-English words, mostly in Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans, in the characters dialogue; as with his previous work, there is a feel of authenticity that paradoxically allows us to identify more intimately with this foreign landscape. And foreign it is – the design team presents us a barren stretch of rock and weed-filled dirt that even in its sneeze-able naturalism suggests some complex metaphors at play.
The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek works best as character studies and a glimpse into an evolving society. But it also does something else. Fugard, who will turn 83 next month, might not have painted the Big One in this play, or even the last one, but with this drama, he both describes and once again demonstrates the tangible power of art.
The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek is on stage at the Pershing Square Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street?(just east of 10th Avenue), New York, NY 10036.
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