The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek: Theater review by Adam Feldman
A black South African farmworker in 1981, bent by the yoke of apartheid, Nukain Mabusa (Leon Addison Brown) expresses himself through outsider art, painting bright shapes onto stones in the arid countryside to create works he calls his “flowers.” He applies his colors in broad strokes, and octogenarian writer-director Athol Fugard limns him with similar directness in The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, a fictional piece inspired by the real-life artist’s oeuvre. Fugard has tallied the costs of apartheid in many important plays, including “Master Harold”…and the Boys (1982), and here he revisits that terrain. In the first act, a dying Mabusa tries to depict his journey though poverty and racism on the largest of the stones. When he does so, it is a triumph: “Nukain Mabusa has told his story and there it is,” he says. “And I am man.”
Fugard’s play, performed by an excellent cast of four, derives much of its initial power from simplicity. There is great joy in witnessing the artist commit himself to paint, assisted by a boy called Bokkie (Caleb McLaughlin). As they work, and as Mabusa explains the dark roads he has traveled, they sing; and although Fugard’s portrait of Mabusa is not deeply detailed, it evokes the suffering of generations of South Africans. When the benighted white farm owner, Elmarie (Bianca Amato), asks him to wash away his self-portrait—she prefers his more decorative creations—his spirit crumbles poignantly.
This, perhaps, is where the play should have ended. But Fugard picks up the story 22 years later, as Bokkie—now called Jonathan (Sahr Ngaujah)—returns to the farm to restore his late mentor’s work. A conversation ensues with Elmarie, who is deeply isolated and fearful for her safety; in a nod to the Truth and Reconciliation process, Jonathan opens her eyes to the injustice of her former privilege. But much of this consists of rehashing and explaining what was clear enough in the play’s first half. Mabusa’s struggle not to capitulate is already moving; it doesn’t require such recapitulation.—Adam Feldman
Pershing Square Signature Center (Off Broadway). By Athol Fugard. Directed by Fugard. With Leon Addison Brown, Sahr Ngaujah. Through June 7. Running time: 1hr 50mins. One intermission.
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