Monday, April 27, 2020

58. BOESMAN AND LENA. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Zakes Mokae, James Earl Jones, Ruby Dee.
 "In Lieu of Reviews"


For background on how this previously unpublished series—introducing all mainstream New York shows between 1970 and 1975—came to be and its relationship to my three The Encyclopedia of the New York Stage volumes (covering every New York play, musical, revue, and revival between 1920 and 1950), please check the prefaces to any of the earlier entries beginning with the letter “A.” See the list at the end of the current entry.

BOESMAN AND LENA [Drama/Marriage/Race/Africa] A: Athol Fugard; D: John Berry; S: Karl Eigsti; C: Margie Goldsmith; L: David F. Segal; P: Circle in the Square (OB); 6/22/70-1/24/71 (205)

Athol Fugard, the anti-apartheid, white, South African playwright, was unable to attend the New York premiere of this lauded play because his native government refused to grant him a passport. The vent raised a fuss in the American press, especially, as critic Stanley Kauffmann pointed out, since the play was more universal than topical in application.

Boesman and Lena was not unanimously admired although its many supporters thought it a work of shining genius, and it has remained a significant part of the modern repertory. There were few who found anything but ecstatic praise for its production, led by two of America’s leading African-American actors.

The plot concerns a husband and wife of mixed blood—“colored” in South African terminology: the warm, humane Lena (Ruby Dee) and her brutal, hostile husband, Boesman (James Earl Jones). This pair is doomed to wander endlessly in the wasteland, their homes on their backs, unable to find a place in either black or white society. During their journeying they meet a poor, suffering, black man (Zakes Mokae), to whom Lena shows human kindness, while Boesman ignores the man’s plight. The man dies and Boesman and Lena must once more pull up their roots and move on, for fear the police will come and connect them with the man’s death.

Those who saw brilliance in this anguished work included Kauffmann, who dubbed it a “beautiful, shocking, unforgettable play, adding that it was “drama not by the encounter of obstacles but by the stripping naked of lives.” Clive Barnes said it was an “amazing” work in which Fugard is “shouting from the roof” with his talent, while John Simon said, “the play gives us a glimpse of hell on earth in the most nearly objective terms in which such harrowing injustice can be invoked.

However, even among backers of the play, a few found it to be somewhat verbose, lethargic, humorless, and undramatic (it played out over two intermissionless hours). Henry Hewes wrote that it was a “slow-moving dramatic incident that challenges an audience’s staying power and its interpretive ability.” To Walter Kerr, it proved “an evening of excruciating boredom.”

Ruby Dee gave the best performance of a lifetime as the sympathetic Lena. Kauffmann rhapsodized: “Her body can do anything she asks of it, and she asks a great deal, but it is her voice that she has now developed to heroic range, from simper to demonic fury. . . . It is the best performance I have seen the American theatre since Judith Anderson’s Medea. Barnes fond James Earl Jones “almost as remarkable. . . . His coarseness, bestiality, his abject lack of courage, are all somehow transfigured into a kind of reality that encompasses not only the brutalized facts of the character, but also . . . demonstrates the forces that produced him.” Zakes Mokae, a South African actor long associated with Fugard’s work, was also lauded for his work.

Boesman and Lena won an OBIE for Distinguished Foreign Play, Dee received one for Best Actress and also was given a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance.

Previous entries:

Abelard and Heloise
Absurd Person Singular
“Acrobats” and “Line”
The Advertisement/
All My Sons
All Over
All Over Town
All the Girls Came Out to Play
Alpha Beta
L’Amante Anglais         
American Gothics
And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little       
And They Put Handcuffs on the Flowers
And Whose Little Boy Are You?
Anna K.
Anne of Green Gables
Any Resemblance to Persons Living or Dead
As You Like It
The Au Pair Man

Baba Goya [Nourish the Beast]
The Ballad of Johnny Pot
Barbary Shore
The Bar that Never Closes
The Basic Training oAf Pavlo Hummel
The Beauty Part
The Beggar’s Opera
Behold! Cometh the Vanderkellens
Be Kind to People Week
Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill
Bette Midler’s Clams on a Half-Shell Revue
Black Girl
Black Light Theatre of Prague
Black Picture Show
Black Sunlight
The Black Terror
Black Visions
Les Blancs
Blasts and Bravos: An Evening with H,L. Mencken
Blue Boys
Bob and Ray--The Two and Only