Hi everybody! I’m back!
You might have noticed that my column of theater reviews, PlayTime, hasn’t appeared for a few months. It’s because I’ve had a couple of serious falls: one that broke my leg and another that demolished my shoulder. But, happily, I’ve recovered enough to wobble off to the theater again, and so I did last Saturday night.
It was the West Coast premiere of South African playwright Athol Fugard’s newest drama “The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek”, presented at what he calls his “artistic home on the West Coast,” the Fountain Theater. This is the fifth new play that Fugard has premiered at the Fountain and, as always, it is a rich, impeccably mounted production.
The play tells the story of a real-life artist, Nukain Mabuza, who focused his artistic passions on a field of rocks in South Africa’s Mpumalanga Province. Calling them his “flowers,” he decorated them in vivid, meticulous designs that lit up the whole hillside.
Mabuza was one of those “outsider” artists who, without training or any specific cultural or social viewpoint, produce intensely personal works for their own satisfaction. In the play that Fugard has constructed about him, Mabuza is accompanied by a fictional young boy, Bokkie, to whom he tells the story of his life. It’s a sad, wandering life spent mainly in scrabbling for subsistence and for some recognition as a human being.
At this moment in the play, having finished with the field of rocks, Mabuza is compelled to deal with the only rock left–the one he calls The Big One. It’s a massive boulder, intimidating in its enormity that he has been avoiding. But in a flash of inspiration he directs Bokkie in painting the bits and pieces that will represent his story – the story of his hardscrabble life.
Just as it is being completed the “Missus” who owns the property, a Mrs. Kleynhans, comes to view her “field of flowers”. Spotting the boulder that tells Mabuza’s story, her “kindly” condescending tone, which most Afrikaners habitually used to talk to their “kaffirs” – a derogatory term used to identify blacks – changes to an imperious order. The boulder, she insists, must be wiped clean and repainted to harmonize with the other flowers in her garden. As she storms out, Mabuza, who had been bowing his head and holding his cap in her presence, stands tall and confronts the idea of his “story” being wiped out, and thus his personhood as well.
The second act takes place some 22 years later. Apartheid has ceased to be the law of the land, and some revengeful blacks are raiding the countryside and killing Afrikaans farmers and their families. A very different Mrs. Kleynhans charges onstage wielding a gun, ready to shoot the young black man wandering around her dilapidated rock garden. He is Jonathan Sejake, the boy Bokkie all grown up, who has returned to the garden with the intention of restoring Mabuza’s life story to the empty boulder.
At this point the play goes where almost all of Fugard’s plays inevitably go: to a two-way conversation in which both black and white protagonists defend their particular viewpoints and finally, reluctantly, acknowledge the misconceptions that defined their previous relationships. It is always a powerful discussion and well worth listening to again.
In the case of “The Painted Rocks,” however, this scene and all the other action is rendered particularly moving by the flawless and insightful direction of Simon Levy. Even the spatial relationships between the actors as they deal with each other is a revealing factor in the telling of their stories.
But of course Levy is working with one of the finest ensembles anyone could put together. Thomas Silcott as the artist Mabuza, reveling in his creations and musing about his legacy, Philip Solomon, natural and devoid of childish cutesiness, as Bokkie, Suanne Spoke, the epitome of Afrikaner womanhood, as Mrs. Kleynhans, and Gilbert Glenn Brown as the grown-up Bokkie, are each as good as it gets. And they have been helped tremendously by the efforts of Angelique Pretorius, the Afrikaans consultant, and most especially by Nike Doukas, the dialect coach. I lived in South Africa for five years and I can vouch for the fact that every actor’s accent and linguistic nuance is consistent and perfectly presented.
Cheers and congratulations to everyone involved in this sterling production!
“The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek” will be presented Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 and 7 p.m. through Dec. 14 at the Fountain Theater, 5060 Fountain Ave. (at Normandie), in Hollywood. Call (323) 663-1525 for tickets or reserve online at www.FountainTheatre.com.