by Jesse Green on February 25, 2019
Lena is frantically trying to recall the route that brought her here. It’s not a question of where she was born but of where she has been ever since.
Her life, long joined unhappily with that of Boesman, another “colored” South African living under apartheid, has been a series of numbing treks from one shantytown to another. Wherever they shelter, it’s temporary; a white man’s bulldozer soon arrives to set them packing again.
The evening on which Athol Fugard’s harrowing play “Boesman and Lena” takes place finds Lena on the muddy banks of the Swartkops River, near Port Elizabeth, after another exhausting day’s walk with her belongings on her head. Or was this walk (she wonders) actually the previous one? Did she spy her former self, or her future self, on the road just now, crossing paths in the muddle of time?
Her confusion, and ours — is she mad? is she symbolic? — are among the reasons “Boesman and Lena” has become a classic of world drama, evolving over time to incorporate new shades of meaning in response to new realities. The fine revival that opened on Monday at the Pershing Square Signature Center, staged by the South African director Yaël Farber, may even mark the play’s emergence as a different work entirely, one that leaves its specifics behind.
In 1969, when “Boesman and Lena” had its debut at Rhodes University in South Africa, it was clearly a document of apartheid — even though its title characters were played in blackface by white actors, including Mr. Fugard himself as Boesman. And audiences who saw the New York premiere in 1970, starring James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee, would likewise have understood it as an outcry against the dehumanizing effects of a specific South African injustice.
So when I first encountered the script in college, it read almost as reportage or agitprop, with an implied call to action. The power games Boesman and Lena play with each other, fighting over their few prerogatives of wine and shelter, obviously recapitulated the greed and sadism of their white oppressors. (Boesman beats Lena as his overseers beat him.) Their disdainful attitude toward an old Xhosa man they encounter on the mud flats — in the country’s racial profiling system, the Xhosa are black, a step below colored — is just apartheid paid downward.
But by the time of the first major New York revival, at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1992, South Africa was beginning to emerge from apartheid, and so was the play. In his New York Times review of that production, Frank Rich had merely to note the homelessness then common on city streets to argue that the play had become “uncomfortably literal.” Boesman and Lena were no longer just victims of apartheid; they were victims of poverty anywhere, sleeping outside the theater, for instance, on filthy subway grates.
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Ms. Farber’s staging for Signature Theater seems to complete this metamorphosis, clearly placing itself within the tradition of existential rather than political drama. For one thing it is — perhaps too self-consciously — a beautiful production, especially as lit by Amith Chandrashaker to catch the actors’ haunted faces in the encroaching dark. And where Mr. Fugard calls for a bare stage, the designer Susan Hilferty has allowed a single bent tree to grow, which by now is a Beckett bat-signal pointing to “Waiting for Godot.”
With that context in place, the arrival of Boesman (Sahr Ngaujah) and Lena (Zainab Jah) cannot fail to recall that of Vladimir and Estragon at the start of “Godot.” They seem more like fellow travelers than (as we eventually infer) common-law spouses — and seem far angrier at each other than at the system that brought them here. When the old Xhosa man (Thomas Silcott, devastating) arrives, he is not just a figure of pathos speaking a language they do not understand. He is Beckett’s Lucky, in an overcoat.
As the context becomes more abstract, the actors’ job gets more difficult. Mr. Ngaujah, who had sympathetic roles as black men mistreated by whites in the Signature’s revivals of Mr. Fugard’s “The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek” in 2015 and “‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys” in 2016, is a shock here, totally renouncing all the ploys, the winks and smiles, that actors sometimes use to soften harsh characters. Only in a couple of moments, when the focus isn’t even on him, does he let down Boesman’s guard enough to suggest the fear undergirding so much ferocity.
Ms. Jah, recently seen in distinctly contemporary roles in “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play” and “Eclipsed,” is even more unrecognizable, seemingly having aged 30 years, or 100, under the eternal weight of Lena’s burdens. In an astoundingly rangy performance, she goes from nattering like Winnie in “Happy Days” (another Beckett icon) to full-on freak-out when she can’t recall her past.
The reason for both behaviors is the same: Lena is desperate for proof she has been, and continues to be, alive — a form of witness Boesman and her addled memory both refuse to provide. Lacking that, a stray dog, or even an old, incomprehensible man, are “better than nothing.”
Can it be, though, that the play is reshaped by such admirable, uncompromising performances? (There aren’t many opportunities for humor in “Boesman and Lena,” but none are taken.) In Ms. Farber’s unrelentingly bleak staging — the two acts are performed here as one that lasts a full two hours — time disappears; except for surprising mentions of condensed milk and motion pictures, we could be in any era, ancient or modern.
So too with the characters, whose specific plight is sanded so smooth we barely see them as an estranged couple anymore, let alone as political victims or refugees. They are solo archetypes of the broader human condition, regardless of race or poverty; not South Africa’s peculiar (and remediable) problem but the world’s eternal one.