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Why This 50-Year-Old Play Is Not a Period Piece

By: Gerard Raymond
Date: Feb 20, 2019

The urgency of Signature Theatre's revival of Boesman and Lena


Yaël Farber says she leapt at the opportunity to direct Signature Theatre Company's revival of Athol Fugard's 1969 apartheid-inspired allegory Boesman and Lena. "Like all truly great theatre, it's a deceptively simple premise; in fact, the simplicity is its power," she explains. When the play opens, the titular itinerant homeless couple has just been thrown out of a shantytown. They rest on the mudflats of a river until night falls, knowing they'll have to continue their endless journey from one temporary shelter to another in the morning. But an encounter with a stranger interrupts their unhappy routine.

Fugard -- an 86-year-old, Tony-winning South African playwright best known stateside for "MASTER HAROLD"…and the boys -- is world renowned for a body of work that unflinchingly depicts the catastrophic impact of the state-imposed racial segregation in his homeland from 1948 to 1994. The two protagonists in Boesman and Lena are of mixed race, aka "coloureds" under the apartheid laws of the time. The man they meet is black and therefore considered even lower down in that dehumanizing system of classification. "It was the extraordinarily detailed and obsessive dividing of all of us that kept everybody conquered," explains Farber. "Because if you just loathed and had contempt for the man below you, effectively society was paralyzed."

Born in 1971 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Farber, like Fugard, grew up under apartheid. But in the "enclaves of white privilege," people like her were shielded from the harsh cruelty of life outside their bubble by the government-controlled media. As a teenager, however, Farber began seeing shows that challenged the country's oppressive regime at Johannesburg's famed Market Theatre. Through a fortuitous loophole, the building, formerly an actual market, had avoided being designated as a theatre. Therefore the law mandating segregated audiences didn't apply.

"It was like an island of sanity!" Farber recalls. "It was literally the only context where you were with people from across the divide; you were in a community. It was like a fever to me to discover Fugard's plays and many of the other works that were emergent at that time -- to discover stories that I felt were telling us the truth. I have never forgotten the power of it, and I never watch any theatre without a deep understanding of how political it is." (That formative experience influenced her work as a playwright as well. Just look at Mies Julie, her politically charged, South Africa-set take on Strindberg's Miss Julie, which is currently running at Classic Stage Company.)


For the actress playing Lena, Zainab Jah, Boesman and Lena is "like a homecoming." Born in England but raised in the West African nation of Sierra Leone until age 10, the London-based performer says her first professional acting job was in Fugard's Valley Song. In that 1995 work, she played an optimistic teenager looking forward to a new life post-apartheid, basically the polar opposite of Lena. "I adore his writing," Jah says, adding that although Boesman and Lena is bleak and tragic, poetry and beauty are also present. "I see Lena as someone who is a raw, wide-open heart wanting to be loved, to be acknowledged. It is such a powerful human need. So many people in her situation are not seen."

Unfortunately, even though apartheid ended 25 years ago, millions of people around the globe continue to suffer like Boesman and Lena. That's why Farber isn't treating the show as a period piece. In today's context, the characters "are the people on the other side of the wall," the director says. She also notes the timeless "Beckettian existentialism" of Fugard's play. "If audiences walk away thinking they have just watched a historical work, I don't feel we have achieved what is actually bristling in the play," she says. "Boesman and Lena have nothing. Every time they have one little thing it is flattened and then they are told to go. They are stripped of everything -- dignity, land -- so that you come back to the essential condition. This is what I believe theatre at its most powerful can do: Show us ourselves without our privileges."


Gerard Raymond is an arts journalist based in New York City.

Zainab Jah and Sahr Ngaujah in Boesman and Lena. Photos by Joan Marcus.

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Gerard Raymond is a Sri Lanka-born arts journalist based in New York City who's a member of the Drama Desk and the American Theatre Critics Association.