Just as there are destination restaurants whose elaborate preparations transform food into gastronomic creations, so are there destination theaters with the funds to turn plays into dazzling good shows. In contrast, it is a relief to go a quiet, neighborhood cafe where limited resources assure that chicken is served in its unadorned succulence and that green beans retain their native freshness. Similarly, the Pillsbury House Theatre's intimate space combined with an honest and sensitive production provides the perfect venue for the emotionally powerful Boesman & Lena.
Written by South African playwright Athol Fugard, and set in the mid seventies on the barren mud flats of South Africa, the play opens as Boesman (James A. Williams) trudges onto the stage, followed in his wake by Lena (Faye M. Price). They are both weighted down by their possessions--his strapped to his back and hers balanced on her head. They have come from their most recent shantytown that has been razed that morning by government bulldozers, and they must, once again, find a place to put up their shack and eke out a living.
Lena is disconsolate, not just from the loss of her home, or from the day's long walk, or because they have come to a desolate place, but because she can't remember the names or order of the places they've been in the endless trek that constitutes her existence. "Veeplaas--Redhouse--Korsten?" she asks, in an attempt to reclaim her life. Boesman won't help her out. "What difference does it make?" he replies. "You're here now," and he threatens to hit her again if she doesn't keep quiet. When an old African (Payton J. Woodson), on the verge of death and who speaks only his native tongue, wanders close to their camp, Lena, against Boesman's wishes, invites him to share their fire, so desperate is she to tell her story and to have another pair of eyes witness the sordidness of her life. Yet, Boesman is equally anxious to avoid the eyes of those that force him to confront the shame of his existence.
Lena expresses her misery and longing in an endless verbal stream--much to the irritation of Boesman whose rage leaps out in short, violent bursts--and dominates the play. Price, in her beautiful portrayal of Lena, masterfully commands the stage, the lilting tones of Africaan, and the world-weary posture of her character who yet retains enough joy to dance and sing. Williams, as Boesman, is also outstanding in his mastery of Africaan and in his ability to assume the posture of a man who for too long has carried the weight of oppression. Together they portray the kind of intimacy that, in life, is gained only through time, and, on stage, is created through artistry and skill.
There are people who think that Fugard's plays are only about apartheid, and if his work were merely topical, its impact would be limited. (Fugard was once asked in an interview what he was going to write about now that apartheid had been abolished.) Rather, apartheid, in large part, serves as the circumstance by which to show, not only how the 'coloured' responded to an unjust system, but, how we all might (and do) behave under oppression that is not limited to place, class, or economics (the wealthy and white can be oppressed even as they hold the power). Oppression scripted by Fugard's pen is tinged with the absurdity of Sisyphus to which we are all subject by the vagaries of fate. It is not someone else's life we are observing on the stage; it is a portrayal of our common experience.
Fugard's work is too valuable not to be produced regularly: he is a playwright of the people (and we all are people). His sparse sets and simple costuming enable the power of his words to shine forth and make his plays uniquely well-suited to the smaller, neighborhood theaters that, lacking big budgets, are left to depend on their hearts, skill and grace.
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