Review of Signature Theatre's Boesman and Lena by Athol Fugard

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    February 26, 2019
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    There’s a reason that Athol Fugard’s 1969 award-winning play Boesman and Lena was on the reading list of every Modern Drama class in the country by the mid 1970’s. Well, maybe not in the deep South. It’s a brilliant play about two people living in South Africa at that time and how their lives were affected by apartheid.

    An unflinching look at the results of these racist policies, Boesman and Lena is the story of a husband and wife who spend their lives walking from place to place when the shanty towns they live in are destroyed by the ruling white men of the area. Although the play is clearly set in its particular place and time, its far-reaching and wider resonance has been noted with every production throughout the world over the many years since its premiere in South Africa in 1969. In fact, in his 1992 review of the Manhattan Theatre Club revival, Frank Rich of The New York Times noted that it wasn’t uncommon to see a version of Boesman and Lena re-enacted every day as homeless people carried all their worldly possessions through the streets and parks of New York City.

    The Signature Theatre production of Boseman and Lena, now playing at Pershing Square Signature Center, exposes yet another level of universality and humanity that underscores Fugard’s literary genius and shines a spotlight on the extraordinary talent of the cast and creative crew behind it. Not only are the familiar social themes of injustice and poverty on display, but this production digs into the relationship between Boesman (Sahr Ngaujah), the husband who is laughed at by white men and who can’t keep a roof over their heads, and Lena (Zainab Jah), the wife who has no say over her life, and who is ignored, ridiculed and beaten by her husband.

    In this #MeToo moment in history where an incredible amount of attention is being paid to the victims of sexual abuse, especially in the workplace, it feels remarkably au courant to see such an in-depth exploration of domestic violence. And in a play like Boesman and Lena that was written 50 years ago but feels so contemporary it could have been written yesterday, it is startling.

    Yaël Farber has created a stunning production that is at once so familiar and yet on the passing edge of understanding that we sit breathless, like the characters, unsure of what the next moment will bring, knowing that we have no hand in what’s to come, praying that it will be peaceful. 

    The talent that conspires to bring this world into being is prodigious. The creative team is inspired and working with a single vision. The sets and costumes by Susan Hilferty are kissed by the brilliant lighting by Amith Chandrashaker. The set is covered by a piece of milky white plastic strung across the stage horizontally as the audience enters the theater. The lighting on stage is fairly low, but not black on stage and the auditorium is lit to what feels like a calm, intimate level. There is a low, slow beating, keening type of music playing. When the audience was full, but the play hadn’t started, I noticed that the piece of plastic was starting to grow translucent. Just before it becomes completely clear, the play starts.

    Not only has Ms. Farber created a compelling physical world, she has obviously created a safe and free environment for the actors to literally throw themselves into body and soul. Both Jah and Ngaujah give tour-de-force performances, holding back nothing either emotionally or physically. Coupled with Fugard’s brilliant writing and insight, one cannot walk out of the theater a little bit changed by what the creative team of Boesman and Lena have left on the stage at the end of the performance.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "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."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "While the production is powerful from an intellectual perspective, it can be emotionally numbing... Boesman and Lena may leave you impressed at the resilience of the spirit or depressed by the revolting way people continue to treat each other. Either way, it is a challenge to endure."
    Raven Snook for Time Out New York

    "It’s been 50 years since Athol Fugard first staged Boesman and Lena, his searing look at a “colored” man and woman in apartheid-era South Africa who have been forcibly evicted from their shanty home, for the umpteenth time. In director Yaël Farber’s deliberately discomfiting new revival, which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre, the drama plays less as history than as allegory."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap