“We’re all of humanity, whether we like it or not.”
by Carol Rocamora
That may be a line from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but it also belongs in the stunning revival of Boesman and Lena, Athol Fugard’s tragedy of race and poverty, now playing at the Signature Theatre. Though written in 1965 under the brutal rule of South African apartheid, its themes and deep meanings seem to have expanded with time to encompass human suffering everywhere in the world today.
From the moment you enter the intimate Griffin Theatre, you recognize the wasteland on stage – one that could be anyplace where poverty exists (in this instance, it’s the Swartkops mudflats near Port Elizabeth, South Africa). The empty stage features only a leafless, lifeless tree (as in Godot), near which sits an inert old man (Thomas Silcott). Hanging over the stage is a plastic tarp, like the ones you see everyday on the streets of any city – representing the makeshift shelters of the homeless.
Enter Boesman (Sahr Ngaujah) and Lena (Zainab Jah), bearing huge burdens on their heads and backs that represent their only worldly possessions. A couple of indeterminate age, they’ve been walking all day – evicted from their previous home that’s been destroyed by the white man’s bulldozer. We soon learn that this is their lot – to walk from town to town as each and every temporary home they build is devastated in a similar manner.
The action of the play occurs over a twelve-hour period, during which Boesman builds a shelter and night comes. It’s a scene filled with deadly fighting between this cursed couple, who take our their shared pain and hatred of their oppressors upon each other. Boesman is brutal in his abuse – he regularly beats Lena, punishing her for their hopeless lot (not only are they homeless, they are also childless, after countless miscarriages and one stillbirth.) Desperate, Lena reaches out to Outa, the old black man, for comfort and companionship, enraging Boesman to the point of violence. What happens in this three-way confrontation is devastating.
Zainab Jah is magnificent in the role of Lena. She represents “everywoman” – numb from suffering but determined to survive. “I meet the memory of my own self on the road – is she coming or going?” she wonders, weary and dazed from a lifetime of walking to nowhere. Still, she endures, and even finds moments of happiness – as she does while Boesman is sleeping, when she steals a harmonica from her knapsack and dances defiantly before Outa. Meanwhile Boesman – the powerful Sahr Ngaujah (of Fela! fame) – rails against his fate. “We are the white man’s rubbish!” he cries. “We’re not people anymore. We’re sh-t. Our life is dumb, like your womb – all that came out was silence.”
Outa (exquisitely played by Thomas Silcott) is a mythical figure, sphinx-like, inscrutable, and eternal. Though Outa speaks to Lena in a South African dialect, we don’t need to understand his whispering words to appreciate the dark portent of what he is saying in this moment of existential crisis. Yaël Farber, herself a native of South Africa, directs with authority and a profound understanding of Fugard’s themes. A faint, hollow rumbling underscores the performance (designed by Matt Hubbs) – it’s the sound of suffering.
As always, the beauty of Fugard’s classical plays lies in metaphor. The road from apartheid to freedom will be a long one (as we know, in retrospect), but Boesman and Lena are fated – or determined – to walk the walk.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Boesman and Lena by Athol Fugard, directed by Yaël Farber, at the The Pershing Square Signature Center, playing now through March 24