By Tulis McCall
The Painted Rocks At Revolver Creek, now at the The Pershing Square Signature Center, is the most recent play by Athol Fugard. Fugard is an icon of the theatre who is known all over the world for his personal courage as much as his writing. For over 50 years he has been telling the story of Apartheid in South Africa. For many of those decades his plays had to be produced outside of his homeland, because if they were produced in South Africa Fugard would have been arrested. Each time I see one of his plays I am flabbergasted by his instinct and his courage. It is one thing to tell a story, and it is another to tell one that puts your life in peril.
In this story he gives us Nukain (Leon Addison Brown) who is loosely based on an outsider artist of the same name. Nukain has created a garden of painted rocks that he shares with his grandson Bokkie (Caleb McLaughlin). It is their ritual to spend Sundays together. But the past two Sundays have been without results. Nukain is facing his last rock, the Big Rock, and he is frightened. He is coming to the end of his artwork and perhaps his life. In Act One he tells Bokkie of his life spent walking and working. As he does he discovers what should be on his last rock – his own life. When ELmarie (Bianco Amato) appears, we are quickly reminded that we are in 1981 South Africa. The rocks Nukain paints are not his. They are hers, and she wants flowers, not reality.
The second act brings us into 2003. Apartheid has ended, but for some the trouble has just begun. Bokkie is now grown up and has returned to the land to pay homage to Nukain’s work. He has even brought paint to spruce up any that might need attention. And the Big Rock surely needs attention. Twenty years of weather have nearly worn away Nukain’s work. Before Jonathan can get started he is interrupted by Elmarie. She is still on her land, but she lives a life of fear. Black Africans are “taking back” the land that the Afrikaners have called theirs for decades. Once she is clear about Jonathan’s identity she lowers her guard and her gun. The remaining portion of the second act is a mildly interesting revelation of a rapprochement on a small scale. The two tell their stories of parallel lives lived light years apart. In the end, it is the Rock who bears witness to them both.
The overall tone of The Painted Rocks is one of sincerity. The tales are true and the state of affairs during and after Apartheid, and up to and including today, is littered with injustice and irrevocable stains of horror. But in this play, Mr. Fugard’s bite has lost some teeth. I am reminded of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (recently performed at BAM with its two original actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona) and The Island. These were plays, produced by Lucille Lortel here in the 1970’s, with little exposition as I recall. The audience had to climb on board the Apartheid train and get with the program. Here, Fugard spends much of his stage time on exposition. Most of it is familiar and as such it loses the impact that Fugard intends. There is so much exposition that the first act is hardly needed, because most of what transpires is reviewed in the second act. Of course, were that to happen, we would all have missed the brilliant performance of Caleb McLaughlin, who, as Bokkie, embodies everything that Fugard loves about his homeland: resilience, persistence, vision and hope. This little boy reminds us to believe that the future needs all of us.
The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek – Written and directed by Athol Fugard
WITH: Bianca Amato (Elmarie), Leon Addison Brown (Nukain), Caleb McLaughlin (Bokkie) and Sahr Ngaujah (Jonathan).
Sets by Christopher H. Berreca; costumes by Susan Hilferty; lighting by Stephen Strawbridge; sound by Stowe Nelson; dialect coach, Barbara Rubin; production stage manager, Linda Marvel; associate artistic director, Beth Whitaker; general manager, Gilbert Medina; director of production, Paul Ziemer. Presented by Signature Theater, James Houghton, artistic director; Erika Mallin, executive director. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Clinton; 212-244-7529, signaturetheatre.org. Through May 31. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.