In 1992, the last time Athol Fugard’s BOESMAN AND LENA was seen on the New York stage, critic Frank Rich observedit was “a universal work that might speak to audiences long after apartheid had collapsed”. With Signature Theatre’s profound, searing revival at Pershing Square, Rich’s observation emerges more prescient than ever. And under the incisive direction of Yael Farber, the play matures as timeless existential statement beyond the South African apartheid landscape of decades past.
Boesman and Lena are a pathetic pair of itinerant, “coloured” (rejected by both whites and Blacks) refugees who trek to the dried-out mudflats outside of Elizabeth, where government bulldozers raised their shanty town. Oppression rules. Boesman regards himself as “white man’s rubbish” but as the oppressed he, in turn, oppresses Lena, beating her, berating her consumption of cheap wine. When an old, dying Black man, who speaks in dialect neither Boesman or Lena understand, wanders into their campsite (a tent composed of thin, sheet of garbage plastic), Boesman jealously ridicules Lena’s fondness for the old man. The oppression isn’t just political and social - it’s emotional and psychological, too.
Under Fraber’s vision, articulated by scenic designer Susan Hilferty, the mis-en-scene brings Becket to mind. Indeed, the sparse, staging with a naked, dead tree reminds specifically of WAITING FOR GODOT: Lena queries Boesman when finally stopping to camp for the night “Why am I here now?” Just as Farber staged David Harrower’s KNIVES WITH HENS at London’s Donmar Warehouse last year, the production is punctuated with primitive texture and sound - dried mud crunches underfoot, a ratty blanket shaken out erupts in a cloud of dirt, pitiful household pots and pans that Lena carries strapped to her waist clank in the barren silence.
Thomas Silcott as the old man renders a hulking figure of death. Sahr Ngaujah’s Boesman is a powder keg of anger ready to explode. But Zainab Jah’s performance as Lena is as gripping and masterful as any that I have seen or expect to see on stage this season. Ms Jah defines BOESMAN AND LENA as Lena’s tale of oppression and survival.
Brutality informs Boesman and Lena mutual existence, and Boesman violently inflicts that brutality on Lena. Yet she cannot leave Boesman (as Estragon and Vladimir cannot part). Resuming her aimless trek with Boesman once again, Lena says “there’s still daylight left in me.” Bleak as her world is, she accepts life in its essence.
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