The World Premiere of a Superb Play

Nukain is an uneducated black farm laborer working in South Africa during the period of apartheid who has nothing of his own but a vision: he paints brilliant designs on bare rocks, creating beauty out of bare bones nothing. This stunning play presses forward with the intensity of a Greek tragedy.

Nukain lives in a pondok (Fugard uses words from the local languages effectively), a small shack made available to him by the Afrikaner landowner couple he works for, and he cares for a destitute, bright eleven-year old black boy, Bokkie, who helps the old man, dragging the wagon with the paints and brushes through the dusty red earth.  Nukain has painted his “flowers” on over 105 rocks  — Bokkie’s counted them – but on this Sunday in 1982, Nukain faces  “the big one,” a huge rough boulder, center stage, and we sense this is his final, great challenge.

Overcoming a reluctance to take this last one on, Nukain paints on the big rock his own story, his self- portrait: a man who has walked dark roads in search of work, overcome personal losses and those thrust upon him by the dehumanizing system of apartheid — to create himself.  I feel blessed to have seen this painting come into creation — reassured by the strong black hand print in the center, and moved by the rainbow at the top.  Nukain is a life-affirming man.

Elmarie, the sweet. young Afrikaner wife, kindly brings some food up to them (left overs, but they look tasty), but her brutal edge springs open like a switch blade at a sign of challenge from either of the two blacks — and she senses a challenge in Nukain’s painting of his story as a man on the big rock.  “Hose it off,” she tells Bokkie.  By this point in the play, the very thought of destroying the painting is beyond bearing – for Bokkie and the audience.

The second act, taking us years ahead to 2003 and the post-apartheid period, brings an encounter on that same dry piece of earth between Bokkie, now a grown man with a real name, Jonathan, and Elmarie.  Post-apartheid, Jonathan’s arc has swung upward and Elmarie’s is in sharp descent.  He wears a suit and tie and leather shoes (slung over his shoulders – a touch of Nukain’s wisdom),  he’s educated and a high school principal, with ideas of someday writing his story.  Elmarie and her (now ill) husband, are living in a state of siege as blacks, seeking to appropriate land, have been murdering white landowners including Elmarie’s neighbors.

Nukain had died all those years ago and three days after completing his work on the big rock.  The light reference to Christ’s three days in the tomb suggest, I think, a spiritual living on for the uneducated, profound creator artist that is fulfilled as the play unfolds.  As for the painted rocks, out in the open, Nukain’s rock paintings, including the self-portrait of his story, have faded.  Jonathan has returned, he says, to restore Nukain’s paintings from the effects of weather and time, but that’s only part of the story.

To the extreme, self-interest and history separate Jonathan and Elmarie , but an underpinning of common humanity keeps them talking.  Nukain does, in a sense, live on.

Leon Addison Brown brings a towering dignity at war with a survivor’s servility to the role of Nukain.  Thirteen-year old Caleb McLaughlin, playing young Bokkie, is totally focused on studying, helping and learning from Nukain and each instant of the action, inner and outer, is reflected in his face and body.

Bianca Amato is so charming as the young Elmarie, though sure she’s boss,  that it’s remarkable to see her shift to the older Elmarie, protecting herself with a gun on the ready, ravaged by events, struggling to maintain her ideology of Afrikaner entitlement, while responding to Jonathan, a man of the new South Africa.  Sahr Ngaujah plays the role of the adult Bokkie, proud of his nation though troubled by excesses, seizing his manly place in the world.

Fugard based his play on a true story of an African farm laborer, Nukain Mabuza, who painted a garden of rocks in the region of South Africa in which the play takes place during the late 1960’s and 1970’s; the play’s narrative and characters are invented. First taken up by Fugard years ago, The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek was completed through a commission of the Signature Theatre, which has produced other works by this prolific and powerful playwright, including The Train Driver and Blood Knot.  As my companion at The Painted Rocks remarked, it’s high time Fugard was considered for a Nobel Prize.

For a fascinating background article, with photographs of Fukain and his painted garden, see The New York Times Sunday, May 3, 2015.  The one book about Nukain, The Painted Stone Garden of Nukain Mabguza by F. C. Clarke, seems not to be currently available.

The largest issues of historic change and social justice, and the tragedies and ambiguities that accompany them, are made immediate through three “small” lives played out on a patch of rocky earth.  That scrubby piece of earth itself is a like character in the play, rendered with real earth and rock in Christopher H. Barreca’s hard-hitting scene design. Sitting in the front row, I sneezed from the dust, and was glad even that way to be a part of Nukain’s world.

This is a play that matters greatly.  Thank you, Signature Theatre, for helping to bring this superb play into creation.

The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek plays at Signature Theatre on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through June 7, 2015.

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