No voice in today’s theater cries out with such compelling pathos and beauty as that of Athol Fugard, a painter of stage stories that, even after more than five decades, continues to throb with life, urgency and insistence. The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek, the South African playwright’s latest, is no exception. At 83, the Tony Award honoree Fugard (The Road To Mecca; MASTER HAROLD…and The Boys) continues to spin tales, often reality-based, that suffuse harsh truths with poetic grace and an ever-deepening empathy that sometimes edges into world-weariness. How could it be otherwise for an artist whose own life has been dedicated to bearing witness to the social ruination of apartheid and its complicated aftermath?
Given a magnificent world premiere at the off-Broadway Signature Theatre, his artistic home of the last several years, Fugard’s Painted Rocks takes its inspiration from the true story of “Outsider” artist Nukain Mabusa. On a moonscape patch of earth near Revolver Creek in South Africa, the aging farm worker has spent his later years painting abstract “flowers” on the rock-strewn plain with the assistance of his eager, excitable young companion Bokkie. Until now, Nukain’s been afraid to tackle the big one, a giant looming boulder. But as the play opens, he has decided to confront it and, diverting from his usual practice, paints on it the striking image of a defiant, proud face, which he dubs “My Story.” 11-year-old Bokkie is thrilled as the weakening elder stands back and triumphantly announces, “I am a man!”
The meager celebration is shattered by the arrival of his patron, Elmarie, wife of the farm’s owner. They have been beneficent masters but masters nonetheless in the years before apartheid’s end. Elmarie has encouraged the rock painting — until now, when she orders Nukain both to erase “My Story” and take a belt to the argumentative Bokkie, to remind him of his place.
The second act takes place 22 years later. Apartheid has been ended and Nelson Mandela is free, but the country is in turmoil. Bokkie, now known by his true name, Jonathan, has returned to the site with a backpack full of paints, bent on restoring the long-washed out image. He’s approached by the gun-wielding Elmarie, who at first fails to recognize him and is shaken by the local violence, including the gruesome murder of her neighbors. And so the humiliation of life under apartheid collides headlong with the bitterness of life post-apartheid, when the privilege of even those who thought of themselves as good people has been shattered. The confrontation between these two is at once electric and almost unbearably poignant.
Fugard has staged his show, and while he has not always been the best executor of his own work, that is not the case with this magisterial, exquisitely paced production. It’s impeccably cast with Leon Addison Brown as Nulain, Caleb McLaughlin as Bokkie, Fela! star Sahr Ngaujah as Jonathan and Bianca Amato as Elmarie. Christopher Barreca provides the aridly beautiful setting, strikingly lit by Stephen Strawbridge, with perfect costuming from Susan Hilferty. It is a play that belongs on Broadway.
Still, it’s worth noting that not only has the Signature become Fugard’s home in New York, but also that the playwright has stamped this unwieldy space, the Romulus Linney Courtyard theater, as his own. He has painted his story here over the course of several memorable productions, and nothing will wash those images away.