We gave it a B
The setting might be a dusty plot of land in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa circa 1981, but it’s tough to watch The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek without also thinking of the #BlackLivesMatter protests currently taking place in America’s city streets. Now playing at NYC’s Signature Theatre through June 7, South African playwright/director Athol Fugard’s latest work delves into relations between black and white citizens during and after apartheid, but its themes of racial tension and a desire for rapprochement are all too timely, echoing conversations that are sadly still ongoing today.
The story, according to program notes, is “suggested by the life of Outsider artist Nukain Mabusa”, and it’s a simple one: laborer and artist Nukain (Fugard vet Leon Addison Brown) makes a weekly pilgrimage to the field of rocks that serves as his canvas, his young charge Bokkie (The Lion King‘s Caleb McLaughlin) pulling the small cart holding the paints Nukain will use to transform stones into flowers. He’s completed 105 of them so far, but the monster they call the Big One will be his masterpiece. Moments after he’d finished, though, Nukain’s final work of art draws the ire of the landowner’s wife, Elmarie (Bianca Amato, late of the Ethan Hawke Macbeth), and things go predictably sour. Twenty-two years later, Bokkie, now grown and using his proper name, Jonathan Sejake (a mesmerizing Sahr Ngaujah), returns to honor and restore the magnum opus of the man he once called father, confronting both his past and his country’s in the process.
It’s powerful source material, but some of Fugard’s writing choices leave a bit to be desired—during a heated exchange, should it really be the black character’s responsibility to back down, advocate for peace and understanding, and attempt to teach the gun-wielding white woman the error of her ways? And is it completely necessary to enumerate in gory detail the crimes of one frustrated, desperate group of black South Africans, while the sins and degradations accrued by an entire class of privileged Afrikaners during decades of state-sponsored segregation are recounted in broad strokes?
But the author obviously has good intentions, and under his guidance, the small cast deliver impeccable performances all around. In the first act, McLaughlin’s young Bokkie shines with a bright energy and a firmly rooted sense of right and wrong, while former Tony nominee Ngaujah (Fela!) bookends the character with gravitas; a magnetic presence, he cycles through loyalty, pride, ferocity, righteous indignation, elation, and good humor—and that’s all in the second act. Amato nails her portrayal of the subtly racist Elmarie, well-meaning and quick to pat herself on the back for showing the most basic of human kindnesses, yet desperate to maintain the status quo and entrenched in her denial of any personal culpability. Brown brings a quiet dignity to his depiction of long-suffering artist Nukain, worn down and exhausted by life but still fighting to make his voice heard.
The set (courtesy of scenic designer Christopher H. Barreca, whose last NYC credit was—no lie—Rocky) is sparsely furnished—a small lot contains dirt and rocks and very little else—but as the actors shuffle, stomp, and jump across the stage, reddish-brown dust fills the air, imbuing the otherwise bare-bones space with a very immediate sense of place. Unfortunately, it’s a place where backward attitudes toward race and humanity were the norm, and one that serves as a sharp reminder that we haven’t learned much from recent history. Still, with pieces like Fugard’s contributing to the cultural dialogue, perhaps those lessons will finally take. B