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

Tag: Athol Fugard

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.

Review | The Train Driver | Written and Directed by Athol Fugard | With Leon Addison Brown and Ritchie Coster | Signature Theatre

 … inadvertent …

Among the Fugard plays I’ve seen, this — possibly excepting the iconic The Island  — is the finest.   It’s intense, with a driving force.  Especially interesting, although race figures importantly, the tragedy isn’t driven by race but by common humanity — weaknesses and all.  I wonder if some would argue that point.  It’s certainly not characteristic of Fugard.  But just as the characters transcend race, so does the play’s driving idea.

It’s set in what first seems an off-putting, grubby, sandy, junk cluttered cemetery for those who die unclaimed and unknown, on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, but in time it comes to seem a kind of glorious kingdom for the black caretaker-grave digger, Simon.  The junk is transfigured into something most precious.  An obviously mentally agitated man, Roelf, who’s white, throws himself on the dusty scene with powerful fury, looking for the burial of a black woman he can only describe by her haircovering, a “red doek,” and her dead infant — so he can curse at her.

Why?  She’s ruined his life.  Roelf’s a train driver and a black woman, with her infant in her arms, had stepped in front of his train to kill herself and the child.  The impossibility of braking the moving train in time, the screech of the brakes, the knowledge of rolling over the woman and child and pulverizing them — the sheer horror — has forced this relatively ordinary white guy, who shares  characterizing disdain for Blacks of his kind and place, into a frenzy of searching, guilt, heightened awareness, and insanity that has forced him to lose his job, home, wife and family and landed him, desperate and volatile, in this woebegone place.

Roelf periodically pulls out a poignantly small newspaper clipping with the account of the train accident, biting down on the pain, and reminding us that the play is “true,” that is, based on a actual incident.  The clipping mentions that the train driver received psychological counseling — obviously not enough to cleanse him of his killing the woman and child.  The psychologist reminded him that, given the braking time of a train, he could not possibly have avoided the accident.  Still Roelf can find no peace in his shattered soul.

At night the cemetery is visited by violent men, and by feral dogs who come to dig up bodies, which is why Simon works hard with his shovel to dig the holes deep.  We wonder if, at nightfall, the wary Simon will let Roelf into his shabby, pick-a-piece-here-and-there cabin, and are touched when he, without emotion, and not disturbing his own routine, does.

What a subtle shift of relationships!  Simon has a home, of sorts, more than Roelf, a regular White guy, who’s been thrown out of the house forever because his despair pushed him to raging destructiveness.  Simon warms up some beans for himself in a can over a candle and sleeps under a blanket.  Roelf sleeps on the floor.

The cautious bonding between these two traditional arch enemies is brilliantly nuanced.    When they begin to use those formal, sentence-introducing words, “My friend, we take note.  My friend.  In the Beckett-like, existential gloom of the cemetery, the traditional enemies, prejudiced Afrikaner and wary Black South African, come together.

And as Roelf continues his driven search for the woman’s grave, he gradually reealizes the meaning of this cemetery for unclaimed bodies and the implications for the lives of those buried here.  With the shock of hitting new territory, he recognizes what drove an unknown woman to place herself and her baby on the tracks of an oncoming train — despair.  Raw empathy opens him to a new horror that displaces his obsession with vengeful cursing:  a human being can live and die belonging to no one.  Now he yearns to re-write the past so that he can put things to rights, he can claim her at her death.

Energized by his new purpose, heedless of risk, not stopping for night, Roelf digs frenetically to find the woman’s burial.  But it’s Roelf’s turn to cause an inadvertent tragedy — for Simon.  Collateral damage.  As Roelf said early on of the woman who stepped in front of his train, if only people who wanted to commit suicide would just jump in the river, sparing others from involvement.

This outstanding play is brought to life by two magnificent actors.  Ritchie Coster conveys the lean, driven Roelf with his voice, his expression, his entire body in a great, generous performance:  the actor gives all.  (I missed some words because of the Afrikaner accent.)  Leon Addison Brown is powerful as Simon, large, dignified, uneducated, intelligent, wary but with human warmth: he holds the fulfillment of the play in his hands in the unforgettable last lines.

Directed by author Fugard, this is in all facets a brilliant production. Christopher H. Barreca’s design for the cemetery and Simon’s cabin, ingeniously included and heartbreakingly “furnished,” is tonally perfect, and real … I’ll never forget that sand, those hubcaps.  Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting makes one feel the passage of days within the play’s short running time, and Doug Wieselman’s original music supports the emotional content unobtrusively, allowing the Fugard’s dynamic action, canny dialog and magnificent language to come through.

For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol

The Train Driver  plays at the Pershing Square Signature Center in Manhattan’s Clinton district, West 42nd Street, through September 23rd.

Review | Blood Knot | Written and Directed by Athol Fugard | Starring Colman Domingo as Zachariah and Scott Shepherd as Morris | Signature Theatre

… Who wears the suit ?….

Set in South Africa in 1961, during apartheid, Blood Knot tells the story of two brothers, one who looks White and the other Black. They’re sons of one black mother each with a different father and, as is said of the one who looks completely White, “It happens.”

They were treated differently from the moment of birth.  How do we know? The older got the Biblical “Black” name of Zachariah, while the younger. born looking White, was given a “White” name: Morris.

Other contrasts are that Morris is literate and speaks with a White South African accent, and Zachariah is illiterate and speaks with a Black South African accent.  (We know the two were brought up together and were very close as boys, so while — sure — one can figure out reasons for these contrasts, they remain unconvincing.)

They’ve been living together in Zachariah’s ramshackle shack in Korsten, a Black neighborhood on the outskirts of Port Elizabeth.  Morris, who’s been a drifter while passing as White, returned to Korsten and to Zachariah about a year ago with a plan:  putting money aside regularly from Zachariah’s wages, he’s saving up for them to buy a farm together — one thinks of Lennie and George in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.

Zachariah, who works at a hard job with a mean boss, and that gives him painful feet, longs to go out for a good time like he used to before Morris installed his dour regime of saving for the future and praying.  Most of all Zachariah longs for “woman.”  To keep him on the straight and narrow while letting him gratify his “woman” fantasies, Morris sets illiterate Zachariah up with a “pen-pal”, a girl in a distant city Zachariah can fantasize about all he wants — until it looks as though the girl is going to come to Port Elizabeth and look for him.  It’s fascinating to watch Zachariah’s strength of personality blast through his dependency on Morris for the writing and reading of exchanged the letters.

Since the pen-pal girl turns out to be White and Zachariah is Black (though she doesn’t know it), the pains and ironies of race relations under apartheid emerge within this oh-so-human correspondence. The pen-pal relationship, with all its room for deception, is filled with humor, pathos and keen suspense as we worry that Zachariah’s romantic desire may lead to a tragic end.  Blood Knot has a terrific Act I.

Act II;  good-bye Lennie and George, hello Cain and Abel.  The basically we’re-in-it-together relationship in Act I is replaced in Act II by raw jealous conflicts between the brothers and by extension between Blacks and Whites.  Once the girl is out of the picture, the men are left with the fancy clothes — featuring an electric blue suit — that Morris had bought for Zachariah when they thought she might actually appear.  Morris dons the suit and — clothes maketh the man — turns gradually into a kind of mean White overbearing, plutocrat overseer, brutalizing his Black brother (supposedly all in a game.).

But with these events, telling as they may be, the action no longer emerges from the characters, but appears arbitrarily invented to make the author’s point.  Zachariah becomes more sophisticated and better spoken, and at the same time more servile than the character we’ve come to know, all in service to the author’s message, that is:  brutal conflict between brothers is in our blood, and we are all brothers under the skin. 

From a rich human drama, the play turns into a schematic parable.  I haven’t seen this kind of programmatic slippage in other Fugard plays; perhaps it’s here because Blood Knot was one of first plays (1961), though revised and re-titled slightly in 1987.  Colman Domingo is powerful and moving as Zachariah in Act I where he has a genuine role to play.  Scott Shepherd is a good foil to him but never as convincing because the role as written is more wobbly.

Among the reasons to see Blood Knot are to learn more about South Africa under apartheid and glimpse the effects on individual lives, and to see the young Fugard finding his way as an important playwright.

Blood Knot  plays at SignatureTheatre, The Pershing Square Signature Center, on West 42nd Street in Manhattan. Click for a review of Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, World Premier.


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