The actors portraying Boesman and Lena move slowly through the audience, carrying their life’s possession on their heads and shoulders, looking around in fear and fatigue, until they make their way up to the stage. The set is a dark, barren landscape, just a small, dead tree under a desolate white light, before the dispossessed couple set up camp for the night.
“Here?” Lena asks. Boesman says nothing. “Mud,” Lena mutters.
This opening of Signature’s 50th anniversary revival of Athol Fugard’s play takes about 15 minutes (or at least feels as if it does.) For the remainder of the play, Boesman mocks and brutalizes Lena, and Lena lures in an old, sick man passing by, using him as both a comfort blanket and a weapon against Boesman.
In 1969, when Fugard debuted the relentlessly bleak “Boesman and Lena” in a college theater in South Africa, it was understood to be his latest anti-apartheid play. The play at the Signature, as directed by fellow South African Yaël Farber, now feels largely removed from its political context. It’s a stunning production visually. The first-rate actors deliver committed performances — Zanab Jah (on Broadway in Eclipsed, Off Broadway in School Girls or the African Means Girl Play) as Lena; Sahr Ngaujah (who starred on Broadway as Fela) as Boesman – transforming themselves into people who are beaten down but still fight to keep just a little bit of hope. But this “Boesman and Lena” comes off largely as allegorical, a Waiting for Godot with African characters. At two hours long without an intermission, this abstracted and depressing “Boesman and Lena” is easier to respect than to sit through.
Before the play begins (as the characters eventually reveal in conversation), “Whiteman” has bulldozed the shantytown in which Boesman and Lena lived – “slum clearance,” they called it –and so the couple is on the move again. Audiences both in South Africa and the United States (where it was produced in 1970 at Circle in the Square starring James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee) understood this displacement as the result of apartheid. They also understood that it was apartheid that victimizes Boesman and Lena a second time by causing them to re-enact the brutality and violence of their oppressor in their own relationship.
This feels less understood in this production. Yes, apartheid ended in South Africa 25 years ago. But other recent productions of Fugard’s plays at Signature – most notably Master Harold and the Boys in 2016, which Fugard directed himself – seemed more clearly rooted in their specific time and place.
This is despite the references in “Boesman and Lena” to the racial politics of the era in which it was written.
The couple sees themselves as superior to the old African, who speaks only Xhosa, because they are designated “colored.”
“It’s a hard life for us brown people…” Lena says, defending the man.
“He’s not brown people, he’s black people,” Boesman replies.
“They got feelings too,” Lena says, although in practice, she doesn’t respect the old man’s. Although he doesn’t understand a word of English, she speaks to him as if he does, and pretends to understand his responses, almost as if he’s a life-size doll.
She is driven to this odd behavior by her loneliness and despair. In a moment of self-awareness, Lena says that she feels like “something that’s been used too long. The old pot that leaks, the blanket that can’t even keep the fleas warm. Time to throw it away. How do you do that when it’s yourself?”
Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.
Boesman and Lena
Written by Athol Fugard; Directed by Yaël Farber
Scenic and costume design by Susan Hilferty, lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker, sound design by Matt Hubbs, fight direction by UnkleDave’s Fight-House, dialect coach Barbara Rubin
Cast: Zainab Jah, Sahr Ngaujah and Thomas Silcott
Running time: Two hours with no intermission
Ticket prices: $35 (before March 17), $45
“Boesman and Lena” runs through March 24, 2019