By Donna Herman
There’s a reason that Athol Fugard’s 1969 award-winning play Boesman and Lena was on the reading list of every Modern Drama class in the country by the mid 1970’s. Well, maybe not in the deep South. It’s a brilliant play about two people living in South Africa at that time and how their lives were affected by apartheid.
An unflinching look at the results of these racist policies, Boesman and Lena is the story of a husband and wife who spend their lives walking from place to place when the shanty towns they live in are destroyed by the ruling white men of the area. Although the play is clearly set in its particular place and time, its far-reaching and wider resonance has been noted with every production throughout the world over the many years since its premiere in South Africa in 1969. In fact, in his 1992 review of the Manhattan Theatre Club revival, Frank Rich of The New York Times noted that it wasn’t uncommon to see a version of Boesman and Lena re-enacted every day as homeless people carried all their worldly possessions through the streets and subways of New York City.
The production of Boseman and Lena now playing at The Signature Theatre exposes yet another level of universality and humanity that underscores Fugard’s literary genius and shines a spotlight on the extraordinary talent of the cast and creative crew behind it. Not only are the familiar social themes of injustice and poverty on display, but this production digs into the relationship between Boesman (Sahr Ngaujah), the husband who is laughed at by white men and who can’t keep a roof over their heads, and Lena (Zainab Jah), the wife who has no say over her life, and who is ignored, ridiculed and beaten by her husband.
In this #MeToo moment in history where an incredible amount of attention is being paid to the victims of sexual abuse, especially in the workplace, it feels remarkably au courant to see such an in-depth exploration of domestic violence. And in a play like Boesman and Lena that was written 50 years ago but feels so contemporary it could have been written yesterday, it is startling.
Yaël Farber has created a stunning production that is at once so familiar and yet on the passing edge of understanding that we sit breathless, like the characters, unsure of what the next moment will bring, knowing that we have no hand in what’s to come, praying that it will be peaceful.
The talent that conspires to bring this world into being is prodigious. The creative production team is inspired and working with a single vision. The sets and costumes by Susan Hilferty are kissed by the brilliant lighting by Amith Chandrashaker. The set is covered by a piece of milky white plastic strung across the stage horizontally as the audience enters the theater. The lighting on stage is fairly low, but not black on stage and the auditorium is lit to what feels like a calm, intimate level. There is a low, slow beating, keening type of music playing. When the audience was full, but the play hadn’t started, I noticed that the piece of plastic was starting to grow translucent. Just before it becomes completely clear, the play starts.
Not only has Ms. Farber created a compelling physical world, she has obviously created a safe and free environment for the actors to literally throw themselves into body and soul. Both Jah and Ngaujah give tour-de-force performances, holding back nothing either emotionally or physically. Coupled with Fugard’s brilliant writing and insight, one cannot walk out of the theater a little bit changed by what the creative team of Boesman and Lena have left on the stage at the end of the performance.
Boesman and Lena By Athol Fugard, Directed by Yaël Farber
WITH: Zainab Jah (Lena); Sahr Ngaujah (Boseman); Thomas Silcott (Old African)
Scenic and Costume Design by Susan Hilferty; Lighting Design by Amith Chandrashaker; Sound Design by Matt Hubbs; Fight Direction by Unkledave’s Fight-House; Dialect Coach, Barbara Rubin; Wig and Makeup Design by Cookie Jordan; Production Stage Manager, Kelly A. Martindale; Rehearsal Stage Manager, Cherie B. Tay; Assistant Director, Taylor Reynolds; Casting by Caparelliotis Casting; Publicity by Boneau/Bryan-Brown. Presented by Signature Theatre, Artistic Director, Paige Evans; Executive Director, Harold Wolpert at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street through March 17th. For tickets: Visit the box office Tuesday – Sunday 11am to 6pm, or call (212) 244-7529, or visit www.signaturetheatre.org.