Playwright Athol Fugard has once again brought the pain and beauty of South Africa to life with his latest play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, which is having its world premiere under his direction at the Signature Theatre through June 14.
As in his 1985 play The Road to Mecca, Fugard celebrates the healing power of artistic expression, a subject dear to him as a white South African writing about the injustices of apartheid in his country. When he spoke at Baltimore’s CenterStage many years ago, he said laws can change governments but only the arts can change hearts.
The hearts that are changed in Painted Rocks belong to Nukain (Leon Addison Brown, in photo), an elderly farmworker, and Bokkie (Caleb McLaughlin), the 11-year-old boy who looks to him for love and guidance. Nukain’s creative outlet has been painting colorful designs, which he calls his “flowers,” on the rocks on the estate of his employer, but now he is weary. The first act is set in 1981 at Revolver Creek, Mpumalanga Province, where Nukain and Bokkie are the visible examples of apartheid’s evils — poor, black, uneducated and treated practically as slaves.
One big unpainted rock, larger than Nukain, sits at the center of the stage, surrounded by smaller ones he has decorated over the years, amounting to more than 100, although this multitude is not seen. He tells Bokkie he is afraid of that one, that it has no eyes and is like the white rulers of the country.
“They got eyes but do not see us,” he says.
But something in him clicks and he decides to give that rock eyes, instructing Bokkie to hand him his paintbrush with first white, then black and finally yellow paints. In creating the eyes, his passion grows and soon he is telling his life story to Bokkie in words while portraying it in symbols on the rock.
When he is finished, he stands back and proudly assesses what he has done. He has expressed his manhood. He feels heard.
But his triumph is short-lived when the Mrs. arrives, his employer’s wife, Elmarie (Bianca Amato). She looks at the rock with disgust at first but then horror after Bokkie tells her it is Nukain’s life story. She instructs Nukain to return the following Sunday and paint over it.
With that, Nukain’s shoulders slump and, with bowed head, he assures her he will. Bokkie objects strongly until she silences him with her scolding, ending Act One.
Act Two is set in 2003. Bokkie has returned with paint to restore the rock and thus Nukain’s story as well. He is Jonathan now and a teacher; Bokkie is an Afrikaans term of endearment meaning little buck. He is met by a terrified Elmarie who points a pistol at him, not recognizing her former worker. In this post-apartheid world she is now the one who is afraid. A neighbor has been murdered by having a pitchfork driven into his throat and his wife was badly beaten and is on the verge of death. Elmarie’s land is now surrounded by a fence, but Jonathan had gotten in through a hole.
Jonathan (Kevin Mambo) assures her he means no harm, that he is only there to repaint the rock. At first she objects, but as they talk her fear gives way to weary resignation, the kind that had marked Nukain’s life.
In a program note, Fugard said the play was suggested by the life of outsider artist Nukain Mabusa but that it is a work of fiction.
All of the cast members are excellent and transported me into that world. Mambo deserves a special shoutout because he had to step in at the last minute for Sahr Ngaujah who was injured in a car accident and is unable to return. He was on-book but was totally in character anyway, especially in the highly emotional moments. And McLaughlin is one talented young man, capturing Bokkie’s exuberance and what to me sounded like a spot-on South African idiom.
Christopher H. Barreca’s set portrays a sandy, hilly countryside, with that big rock dominating. Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting bakes it in African sunlight. Susan Hilferty’s costumes portray the poverty and ruggedness of the land and its time.
It was interesting for me to see this play, which has been extended twice, in the same week I saw the Jacob Lawrence exhibit at MoMA. In 60 paintings, Lawrence portrays the northern migration of southern blacks in the early part of the 20th century, and the reason for it. Like Nukain, Lawrence used art to tell a story. I would go back to either of these shows in a heartbeat.