Saturday, March 2, 2019

174 (2018-2019): Review: BOESMAN AND LENA (seen March 1, 2019)

"Apartheid's Burden"

South African master playwright Athol Fugard’s powerful apartheid-era play, Boesman and Lena, written in 1969, was first seen in New York in 1970. Its leading performances, by James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee, were unanimously acclaimed, but reactions to the play ranged from ecstatic to bored.

 It’s now getting its second local revival, a fine one, at the Pershing Square Signature Center, following a highly praised version by the Manhattan Theatre Club in 1992, directed by the playwright and starring Keith David and Lynne Thigpen.
Zainab Jah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The white, anti-apartheid dramatist was unable to attend its first New York showing because the South African government refused to grant him a passport to leave. This raised a fuss in the American press, especially as the play is more universal than topical in application. 
Thomas Silcott, Zainab Jah, Sahr Ngaujah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
It concerns a homeless, childless man and woman of mixed race—“coloured” in South African parlance—the warm, humane Lena (Zainab Jah), and the brutal, hostile Boesman (Sahr Ngaujah), who beats Lena when it suits him. This unhappy pair, whose shack has been bulldozed by the corrupt government, are doomed to wander endlessly in the wasteland, their scant possessions on his back and her head, unable to find a place in either black or white society, and barely surviving as scavengers. 
Zainab Jah, Sahr Ngaujah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As the play starts, South African director Yaël Farber (whose Strindberg adaptation, Mies Julie is at the CSC), in a sequence that goes on too long, has her actors enter at a snail’s pace through and around the auditorium, as if to implicate the audience in the characters’ dilemma. Finally, they come to rest at a desolate spot (designed by Susan Hilferty, who also did the believably shabby costumes), whose single, bare bush instantly suggests the foreboding locale of Waiting for Godot, which the play sometimes echoes. The place, on the mud flats of the river Swartkops, outside Port Elizabeth, is only the latest on their peregrinations from one shantytown to another, each of which Lena struggles to recall.
Sahr Ngaujah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Here, as Boesman erects a shelter (or pondok), and they prepare to eat and sleep, they meet a poor, suffering black man (Thomas Silcott), to whom the hopelessly optimistic Lena, desperate for human connection, shows sincere kindness. He speaks only Xhosa, which neither she nor Boesman, who ignores the man’s plight, understand. Lena’s tenderness to the man, despite their inability to communicate verbally, only further antagonizes Boesman, whose own racism toward darker skin is thus implied.
Thomas Silcott, Sahr Ngaujah, Zainab Jah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Eventually, the man dies, further fueling Boesman’s fury, which he expresses by beating the corpse. Fearing the police will come and connect them with the man’s death, the couple moves on, searching for their elusive “freedom,” a small part of which Lena may already have found by confronting Boesman.
Thomas Silcott, Zainab Jah, Sahr Ngaujah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
In one sense, this is a common story of domestic abuse, or of compassion in conflict with cruelty. Some have seen hints of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in Boesman and Lena’s relationship, Its context here emphasizes the dehumanizing effects of South African racism on people of color. Naturally, it also reflects the agonies of displaced persons all over, not merely the migrants trudging across the globe but those closer to home, huddled in corners wherever one turns these days. Just take a trip on the New York subway to see our own Boesmans and Lenas.
Zainab Jah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Boesman and Lena is a heavy dose of bleak, nearly humorless drama requiring considerable patience. Its language, spoken in the heavy accents of poor South Africans, is abundantly rich and provocative, and the performances of all three actors are excellent, but the material is relentlessly depressing. There are verbose monologues, especially by Lena, and lots of angry shouting by the volatile Boesman. Much of the play moves slowly, repetitiousness is evident, and dramatic developments are rare. Its two uninterrupted hours, regardless of how well done, can wear out even the most sympathetic listener.
Thomas Sillcot, Zainab Jah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Ngaujah and Jah make a perfect Lena and Boesman, his piercing eyes and searing rage saying as much as his scathing language, while her physical and vocal adeptness allow her to express multiple emotional levels. Silcott, as the mumbling black man, who must remain silent for so much of the play, proves how a good actor can make even stillness eloquent. Fugard’s moods are further heightened by Amith Chandrashaker’s gloomy lighting and a lowkey, pulsating sound score by Matt Hubbs.
Sahr Ngaujah, Zainab Jah. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Apartheid may no longer exist as an official  policy but what it represented does, wherever racism holds a people down. One needn't see Boesman and Lena to be reminded of this.

Pershing Square Signature Center/Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
480 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through March 24