Even though he has already written over a score of plays about life in South Africa during and after apartheid, Athol Fugard still has things to say on the subject. His new play at Signature Theatre is loosely based on the career of outside artist Nukain Mabuza, a black farm laborer who painted colorful designs on the boulders located on the farm owned by the Afrikaaner family who employed him. They encouraged him and bought him paint to spend his Sundays turning the rocks into stone “flowers.” In Fugard’s fictionalized version of his life, the aged Nukain (Leon Addison Brown) arrives with his 11-year old assistant Bokkie (Caleb McLaughlin) to tackle the last unpainted boulder, a gigantic one he calls “The Big One.” He feels artistically blocked and unable to paint the rock until Bokkie’s suggestion that he paint eyes on it. Doing so releases a flood of creative energy and, instead of a flower, he turns the rock into an abstract record of his life. When the boss’s wife Elmarie (Bianca Amato) arrives bearing leftovers, she dislikes his painting and tells him to paint over it the following weekend and replace it with another floral design. Bokkie is horrified and sasses her. She is enraged at his cheekiness and tells Nukain to use his belt on him. The irony is that Nukain is so poor he doesn’t even own a belt.
22 years later, the adult Bokkie, now known by his given name Jonathan (Sahr Ngaujah) returns to Revolver Creek where he is greeted by a hostile Elmarie brandishing a pistol. She does not recognize him and is on edge because of the recent murder and torture of her neighbors by blacks. Most of the act consists of long alternating speeches by the two, each passionately defending a point of view. Fugard plays fair in presenting their perspectives and mostly avoids didacticism. The play ends on a cautiously optimistic note.
The production is exemplary. The cast could not be better. Christopher H. Barreca’s evocative set draws you in immediately. Susan Hilferty’s costumes are appropriate. The playwright’s direction is uncluttered. It’s not a major Fugard play, but still a welcome addition to his canon. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes including intermission.
NOTE: I suggest staying in your seat at intermission because the set change is extremely interesting. I also suggest avoiding the first two rows (unless you have a foot fetish) because you’ll be staring at the performers’ feet.