Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: apartheid

Review | Master Harold and the Boys | Written and Directed by Athol Fugard | Signature Theatre

… careless triumph …

Master Harold and the Boys moves with this compelling force of a Greek tragedy.  It’s classic and iconic, and must be seen.  It is profound in character and social vision.

It even obeys Aristotle’s three dramatic unities – unity of time (within a single day), action (minimal subplots)  and place– described ins his Poetics.

We are in a tea room in a provincial town in South Africa in 1950.  Willie is a young Black man who wants to win a big dance contest and, in a slow time in the tea room, no customers, Sam, an older Black man, is trying to help him loosen up his style.  When Hally, the White teen-aged son of the tea room’s owner comes in, and the two Black men have already utterly charmed us, we are want to know how Harold, called Hally, feels about these two Black men. Thank heavens he seems to like them, love them, even.

Back when Hally’s family owned a rooming house, Sam and Willie lived in, and disaffected from his father, Halley often visited “Sam’s room,” especially when he felt down, for refuge and a warm, easy-going good time. Sam’s almost like a father to him.  They’re like family, right?

Yet Halley’s such an oddball, a brainy loner among his peers, he puts us on edge.  He’s nervous, jerky in his movements, and very much on edge.  There are nerve-wracking phone calls, his Dad, who has been a crippled, sick man for years, is in the hospital, his mother’s there with him, Dad wants to sign himself out but Halley tries to persuade him not to – he doesn’t want his crippled, demanding Dad, who he has to clean up after, at home.

As the play advances, past and present collide.  We learn more about the way Sam has pulled Halley over the rough spots, been like a father to him, and also about the ways apartheid has been felt in that relationship in ways known to Sam but not to Halley.  Halley is caught between that sweet nostalgia and the maddening present forced upon him by his sick, inconsiderate and demanding real father.

Halley is frustrated and furiously angry, but he doesn’t have to truly struggle with the issues, or reconcile his feelings about his two fathers.  Because of the system of apartheid, he has a way to vent his frustrations right at hand, an easy line of least resistance because Halley — the skinny kid among two mature men — is boss here. A loving history, sentiment, all that soft stuff quite aside, the bottom line:  he Master Harold and they are the boys.  Halley can let loose at the expense of others with impunity – and while we know he’s bookish and brainy, we haven’t seen anything to us about his character, in spite of Sam’s best efforts.

Thus Sam comes face to face with reality:  he’s changed.  So is the audience, as the obstinate, inevitable cruelty of apartheid takes its careless triumph over the human spirit.

Leon Addison Brown creates a beautifully full characterization of Sam, mature, experienced in life (though alas, he learns more here), humorous, with deep and protective feelings for Halley and Willie.  He touches our hearts even in the way he walks across the stage of moves in teaching Willie how to dance.  I wish the play had given some hint of an answer to one question:  We know Sam has a girlfriend, but why did this loving man never have children of his own.

Noah Robbins is simply brilliant as Halley, the hyper kid dragging around his heavy book bag.  His characterization is one of those — like Eddie Redmayne’s as Stephen Hawking in the film The Theory of Everything — where it’s hard to believe that the “real” person is anything other than his character.

Sahr Ngaujah conveys Willie’s youthful extroverted vitality – the opposite of Halley’s self-involvement. Willie isn’t a natural dancer like Sam, but he’s out to win the dance contest.  Ngaujah unites a touching clumsiness with Willie’s determination to win, an emblem of victory over limitations.

Frank Rich, reviewing Master Harold and the Boys for the NY Times in 1982 wrote, “There may be two or three living playwrights in the world who can write as well as Athol Fugard, but I’m not sure that any of them has written a recent play that can match ” ‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys.”   Agreed.

group-areas-act1950.  We wouldn’t necessarily know, watching the interactions of these three characters, that this was the key year  in apartheid’s history in which the Group Areas Act was passed with its formal segregation of blacks and whites, but through Fugard’s play, we  feel its weight on individuals.

Master Harold and the Boys plays at the Signature Theatre on Manhattan’s West 42nd Street through December 4, 2016.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Review | The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek | Written and Directed by Athol Fugard | Signature Theatre

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.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén