Two lost souls heave themselves through and then out onto the Signature Theatre Griffin stage in the powerful 1969 play, Boesman and Lena, written with grit and determination by Athol Fugard (The Road to Mecca, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek) with the full force of the history of the discarded on their backs. Everything they own is bagged and lashed to their tired frames, weighing down their battered souls as they wander the mud flat landscape by the river Swartkops in South Africa. They used to “walk side by side“, says Lena during one desperate heartfelt moment, but now the world they inhabit impinged by the repressive apartheid has hardened their earth-caked skin to one another. Lena follows, attached to Boesman as if a piece of barbed wire keeps them from leaving one another, clinging to the idea of dual survivalism, regardless of the hits she has to endure in order to not be on her own.
On the same barren landscape, another man wanders, similarly exhausted by the predicament he finds himself, but his language tells another tale, one we can’t quite grasp or understand. But within this rough and dirty play, as directed by Yaël Farber (Donmar’s Knives in Hens, CSC’s Mies Julie) with tenderness and forcefulness underneath the bruised skin of these wanderers, a subtle elegance of unrelenting authenticity can’t be extinguished.
Zainab Jah, the vicious warrior woman in Broadway’s Eclipsed, portrays the talkative but worn down Lena, a “Coloured” woman, bent over by the weight of her bitter load on her bruised back. She holds on to life through her tattered attachment to the head strong Boesman, a “Coloured” man, played powerfully by Sahr Ngaujah (Public’s Mlima’s Tale). The two encapsulate the pain and threat beautifully, like characters from a refuge-laden Waiting for Godot, but it’s the elusive whisper of hope that they pray for, desperate to see it rise up with the sun the next morning. It’s as existential as Godot, these societal outcasts’ long days journey into the frightful night, so the pair holds tight to one another, even when slapping away the reached out hand. Their connection is hard and telling, and their engagement is tense and aggressive, like beaten-down animals who can sense deep in their pained heart that aloneness would be worse than the endless bickering and arguing. That to have one another is the single thread that might keep them human and alive.
In that humanity, Lena sees another lost soul, barely making it across the mud as the dark night falls. She knows his pained step, and calls him over to her fire. Is it a selfless act or a selfish need to connect to another, or both? He is an Old African “Black” man, played with mystic glory by Thomas Silcott (Berkeley Rep/Fountain Theatre’s Coming Home) who follows the physical orders of Lena, resting by the fire and speaking in a language Lena doesn’t understand. She’s frustrated by his speech and language, wishing to have another ear, one that might be kinder and more sympathetic to her endless chatter, but eventually, like the rest of us, she finds warmth and compassion in his unknown words, and an endless connection to the spirit of earth and sky.
In a way, he seems to be a connecting thread to the old woman playwright Fugard noticed in real life, back in 1965, walking along a rural road in the boiling South African sun, miles from anywhere. He offered her a lift in his car, and she is overcome with emotion and cries with gratitude. She tells him that her husband had just died, and, as is a common practice in South Africa during the hard years of apartheid, she has been evicted and is walking to another farm holding on to some sort of hope for her future. Fugard knew that had he not stopped, she would have spent the night on the side of the road. He recounts that the woman is clearly in pain and suffering but somehow, she is not defeated.
Apartheid has beaten these souls down, and in Fugard’s play, these complex detailed characters are being sent on a refuge-like journey from shanty town to this plastic tent camp, magnificently created by set and costume designer Susan Hilferty (Broadway’s Present Laughter), detailing visually under the harsh dusk and focused eye of lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker (Ars Nova’s The Lucky Ones), with sound design by Matt Hubbs (Broadway’s Indecent), and wig and makeup designer Cookie Jordan (Broadway’s The Cher Show). The silhouettes and the dynamic staging shatter our senses and muddy our souls. It’s the hardest of existences, much like the many who are forced to escape their homes and their lands of origin, becoming refuges begging on the borders to be seen and heard. We see them on the news, discarded by many politicians in this country as the world’s garbage, but here, through the passionate writing of Fugard, we are given the opportunity to see their shattered scarred, but salvageable souls with more clarity and hopefully with a greater heartfelt understanding of the journey they are forced to take.