03 July 2015

'The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek'

Because of personal scheduling problems, I had to postpone the final two productions of the 2014-15 season at the Signature Theatre Company, originally booked for late May.  When I got back to New York City at the beginning of June, I immediately reserved seats for A. R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer (report posted on ROT on 28 June) and Athol Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek because both plays were scheduled to close soon after I arrived home.  (Both productions, in fact, have closed: Summer on 7 June and Painted Rocks on 14 June after two extension.) 

I went up to the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row for the Saturday matinee of the world première of The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek in the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, the company’s variable-space theater that seats about 190 patrons, on 6 June.  (For this staging, the Linney was configured as a modified proscenium house.)  The play, directed by the author, had begun previews on 21 April and opened to the press on 11 May; it had been scheduled to close on 31 May, but was extended first to 7 June and then for a week more.  Fugard, 83 on 11 June, was the Residency One playwright at Signature in 2011-2012 (Blood Knot, My Children! My Africa!, The Train Driver); Painted Rocks marks the South African dramatist’s return to STC as a Legacy Playwright. 

The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek was inspired by the work and life of outsider artist Nukain Mabusa (a common alternative spelling is “Mabuza.”), making the play Fugard’s second about an outsider or visionary artist.  The first was The Road to Mecca, which is about Helen Martins (1897-1976), another South African outsider artist.  (For ROTters interested in outsider or visionary art, see my article “Outsider Art,” posted on this blog on 9 January.)  Between the 1960s and 1980, Nukain Mabusa, a South African farm laborer who was born in Mozambique sometime soon after the turn of the 20th century, painted the rocks that dotted a hill near his hut in Revolver Creek in Mpumalanga, South Africa, in brilliantly-colored patterns.   He called them flowers” and the rocky, barren hill was “the most beautiful garden in the whole world.” 

Introduced to the stone garden of Mabusa (d. 1981) in 2010 or so, Fugard looked him up on the ’Net and “the moment I saw what Mabusa had achieved, I realized I was in the presence of a fellow artist.”  He sketched out a draft of a play, called Visions, which he put aside until Jim Houghton, STC’s founding artistic director, invited the playwright to return to the theater under the auspices of the Legacy Program

“Strange as it may seem,” says Fugard, “I consider myself an outsider artist,” which he defines “as someone who has created something significant or beautiful with no formal training in any artistic discipline,” and therefore conceived an identification with Mabusa to whom, he said, “I naturally respond.”  The writer’s first efforts yielded a one-act play about “the living Mabusa,” but his “partner, Paula Fourie, said, . . . ‘You’re not engaging our present reality.  You’re stopping short of it.”  So Fugard added a second act that continued the play’s tale after the visionary artist’s suicide in 1981 and the dramatist said that the story took on a life of its own.  “I would bring back two of the characters from Act I, and now they would be in the new South Africa, dealing with those issues” concerning land ownership and the place of the Afrikaner in a new society.  (The program included a note making clear that although Painted Rocks was “suggested by the life of” Mabusa, the play “is a work of fiction and is not intended to” depict any actual history of the outsider artist.) 

The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, a 90-minute, two-act play, is divided into two parts—almost two connected one-acts (though act two couldn’t stand alone, while act one might).  Set in 1981, the year of Mabusa’s death, the first act shows Nukain on a Sunday afternoon arriving at the top of the rocky hill where he’s been painting his flowers for 15 years.  He’s accompanied by Bokkie, an 11-year-old boy who’s become a sort of protégé of the farm worker-artist and pulls the small cart that holds the painting materials.  Nukain’s about to try once again to paint “The Big One,” the largest rock on the hill which has been daunting him since he finished painting all the smaller stones.  It’s scared him and he doesn’t know why or what to do about it.  Talking and singing with Bokkie, who cleans his brushes and mixes his paints, Nukain recounts his life, a meandering search for work that eventually brought him to this Afrikaner farm in Revolver Creek.  He talks about the many roads he walked; the rainbows he’s seen overhead despite the horrors he’s witnessed; the places from which he’d been turned away—all the burdens of apartheid, the racist policies of white, Afrikaner-ruled South Africa.  The white South Africans, Nukain tells Bokkie, “got eyes but they do not see us.”  Suddenly, the tired, old man comes to vibrant life: he knows what to paint on The Big One.  He instructs Bokkie to start painting: “Give him eyes!” he tells Bokkie.  “We are going to give the big one eyes,” Nukain explains, “so that he can see me now when I stand here.”  And the boulder soon becomes not one of Mabusa’s flowers, but an abstract representation of the farm laborer’s life—his “story.”  Boy and man are both excited, thrilled not just with the impulse of creativity but of finding a voice for themselves. 

Throughout the play, even among themselves, the black South Africans are known by impersonal names—sometimes paternalistic ones like Tata, as Bokkie calls Nukain (whose actual name isn’t ever used in act one), which means “father “ and is a way of referring to old men, to kaffer, a pejorative Afikaans term for blacks.  Even Bokkie is a nickname that means “little buck.”  Either they’re skollies, or hooligans and troublemakers, or they’re just invisible.  They have no identity.  When Mabusa was buried, his grave marker bore no name, just his registration number from his dompas, or identity document.  (For all the renown Mabusa has acquired since his death, his life and background are still obscure.)  So when Elmarie Kleynhans, the wife of the Afrikaner farm baas (boss) who’s Nukain’s employer, brings the two laborers some leftovers for their lunch, she’s dismayed to find that Nukain’s not painting another of his beautiful, but non-personal flowers but instead has told a story she doesn’t even understand and whose significance she doesn’t perceive.  Elmarie orders Nukain to wipe the painting off by the following Sunday and replace it with another flower.  (The artist was found dead in his pondok, his hut, the next Sunday, having committed suicide.)

The second act jumps the story ahead to 2003, after the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as the first black President of the Republic of South Africa (1994).  (In my report on Fugard’s Blood Knot, 28 February 2012, I included a brief history of apartheid.)  A young black man in his thirties wearing a suit climbs up the hill and looks around at the faded and weathered painted rocks, including The Big One which bears the mere shadow of Nukain’s last painting.  Suddenly, an older Elmarie appears with a pistol, talking into a walkie-talkie.  She’s obviously patrolling the farm in coordination of others off elsewhere in Revolver Creek doing the same.  She takes the young man for an intruder—marauding trespassers have been committing brutal murders of Afrikaner farmers in the region, including the neighboring farm—and is shocked to learn that he’s the former Bokkie, now known by his real name, Jonathan Sejake, a teacher and school principle.  He’s come to restore Nukain’s—he informs Elmarie of Mabusa’s actual name, too—painting on The Big One, to memorialize the artist’s story for prosperity.  Because the land belongs to Elmarie and her husband (whom we never meet, but who’s suffered a stroke in the ensuing 22 years), she has to give Jonathan permission to repaint the boulder, just as she had given Nukain permission to paint the flowers decades earlier.  Nukain hadn’t even owned his own creations; they belonged to the Afrikaner boer (farmer) for whom he worked.  In the end, Elmarie, who still doesn’t understand what Nukain—and now Jonathan—is all about, grants the permission.  Jonathan will now be able to honor his friend’s work—and they’ll both have names and a story.  (In real life, the painted rocks, well over 100 in Mabusa’s garden, are open to visitors, though not preserved or restored, near the town of Barberton, South Africa, where Mabusa’s unmarked grave is located.  He had wanted to be buried on the hilltop, among his flowers—but even that was denied him.)

In Fugard’s hands, Mabusa’s painted rocks become a symbol of South Africa.  They are a stark glimpse of beauty and color in the arid and otherwise unusable landscape of the little hill in Revolver Creek.  For Mabusa, they are the one thing that is his—even though he doesn’t own them—because he created them out of his imagination, his soul.  Nukain’s story as depicted on The Big One is even more significant.  But the flowers and Nukain’s story fade, the rain washes away their colors and the sun bleaches them.  After Nukain’s death, they are neglected and all but forgotten (as they are in reality), left to languish without committed caretakers, like Mandela’s South African dream.  To preserve them, particularly The Big One and its story of the invisible man who created it, a black South African and white Afrikaner have to talk to one another, understand something of one another, agree to accomplish the same end.  I think that’s what Fugard wants us to understand from The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek: the only way to preserve South Africa and see it into a happy, productive future that resembles Mandela’s dream of harmony and equality is for black and white South Africans to meet somewhere between them.  To do that, of course, they have to start to see one another.

The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek is also about identity—having one, losing one, regaining one—and what that means for a person and a people.  It’s a subject Fugard has written about a lot over his long career.  You might even say, it’s his only topic—he just used different stories to revisit it.  Outsider art may be the perfect vehicle for such an examination since the very nature of outsider art is that the creators are virtually unknown, societal cyphers, who create not for fame or reward—financial or otherwise—but, as Fugard puts it, because they are “motivated by a very specific vision.”  You might also say that that’s why Fugard writes—and he does consider himself “an Outsider Artist in a sense.”  As if he were standing in for the playwright, Jonathan compares himself to Nukain: “I love language the way he loved color.”

Painted Rocks isn’t a perfect play.  It has many small deficiencies, not the least of which is its structure, the very aspect Fugard developed in order to tell this story when he revised the original Visions.  It splits too neatly and deliberately into two stories: Nukain’s creative efforts to overcome his erased identity and his ultimate humiliation at the hands of an Afrikaner, and then the redemption of Bokkie through Mabusa’s influence and his achievement in recovering his personhood in the face of the same boer’s inability to see him as a person, much less an equal.  The link between the two parts is almost accidental—that Jonathan in act two is also Bokkie in act one and that Mabusa’s presence is carried over from act one to act two; only the continued existence of Nukain’s final painting on the face of The Big One, vibrant and alive in the first act and faded and dim in the second, truly united the two halves.  Both sets of circumstances are a bit pat, almost contrived—almost too convenient for Fugard’s storytelling and point-making.  And this is territory the South African playwright has traveled before, so he’s retelling a familiar and predictable tale.  But none of these weaknesses fatally damage the play, since Fugard is a master storyteller first of all, with his poetic use of language (in this case, many languages, as he incorporates bits of Afrikaans, Xtosa, and Zulu, among others, with his lyrical use of English).  Second, the evils of apartheid, which have lived on 20 years after the system was dismantled, is a topic worth revisiting as long as its influence continues to plague us, like bigotry and invidiousness of all kinds.  As the playwright observes: “South Africa is a very complex situation . . . which prompts me at times to describe what is happening in the country as a betrayal of Nelson Mandela’s vision of racial harmony and equality.”

The STC production was, as usual, excellent.  Set designer Christopher H. Barreca realistically recreated Mabusa’s hilltop stone garden so evocatively, it stood almost as a homage to the real site (of which there are many photos, both in the theater and on line).  The change from the bright, vivid geometric patterns of act one, when the rock are relatively newly painted, and the same scene 22 years later when the colors (like Mandela’s dream?) have faded and paled almost arouses the same kind of sadness that a dying pet might.  The costumes (Susan Hilferty) and lights (Stephen Strawbridge) were both unobtrusive but helped create the environment of the arid, barren little koppie (a small hill in an otherwise flat terrain) in the middle of nowhere—the territory Nukain inhabited most of his life and where Bokkie was destined to live as well had it not been for Mabusa’s inspiration.  (Hilferty designed costumes for Fugard’s A Lesson from Aloes in 1980 and has worked with the playwright-director ever since; this is their 40th collaboration.  At about that time, she, Barreca, and Strawbridge formed a design collective, The Studio, with other artists and they began working together with Fugard when the playwright came to STC for his Residency One season; the three designers collaborated on Blood Knot, My Children! My Africa!, and The Train Driver in 2012.)

As director, Fugard had “some vague idea” where he was headed, of course.  But he also says, “I don’t know very much about the play I’ve written, until I’ve worked with actors and designers.  And then I discover the play I wrote.”  (The playwright-director insists that theater is “a collaborative art.  It starts with somebody who sits down and tells a story . . ., but that’s just the first step in a process.”)  I’ve complained from time to time about playwrights who direct their own work because they’re so often devoted to the words they wrote to the exclusion of any in-put from actors or designers.  Fugard, who’s admitted that he’s “learned not to be protective of the script” as he originally wrote it, leaving room for changes and new discoveries, hasn’t been guilty of that.  When I saw Edward Albee’s self-directed Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1976, I was constantly aware that the playwright had directed it; I often forgot that Fugard had directed not just Painted Rocks but the other Signature shows he staged himself (Blood Knot and Train Driver).  His hand was sure but not intrusive—and it focused on the acting/character creation—and the overall storytelling—and not on the words, as I felt Albee had.

Fugard asserts that he looks for actors who’ll contribute to the creative process as part of a team of artists.  “It’s a case of midwifery.  Of being a midwife to a potential that is there.  You assemble a team, you’ve  got the designers you wanted, you’ve got the actors you wanted, and there’s a potential in that that must be born.”  If that’s the case, then the writer-director enticed some excellent performances from his acting team, giving them something of a free hand to create and develop characters of vibrancy and truth.  The acting, in other words, was superb.  (I’ve rarely witnessed anything else at STC.)  Especially impressive was Leon Addison Brown (with whom Fugard had worked as both playwright and director in Signature’s Train Driver) who portrayed Nukain with such delicate and thoroughly honest dignity that I sometimes thought I was watching the rock-painter himself (a feeling I’ve only had once before, seeing Pat Carroll inhabit the title character in Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein Gertrude Stein in 1979); the rest of the time, I settled for feeling that Brown was somehow channeling Mabusa.  (I have no doubt, intellectually, that the actor had created an imaginary person whom he and the author-director felt embodied the idea of Nukain Mabusa, but emotionally and psychologically, Brown convinced me that he was this unique and sensitive person.)  His movements (even when the character was “still”), his poetic speech (contributed, of course, by Fugard with a few quotations from Mabusa), his thoughts on art and life—all were so completely integrated and solidly grounded in a persona of extraordinary sensitivity and wisdom that I never once didn’t believe Brown.  Tired and stooped as he trudged up to the hilltop, when Nukain discovered his subject for The Big One and began to tell his story in paint, Brown stood tall and strong; when Elmarie appeared and questioned Nukain’s very purpose, Brown shrunk into subservience once again.  This was an astonishing man; this was a remarkable performance.  (Brown now goes on my list of actors to keep track of.  I want to see him do other roles in other productions.  I have a feeling, as I’ve said of Michael Countryman several times, Brown’s a chameleon on stage.)

Brown’s partner, the vivacious and enthusiastic Bokkie, was played by 13-year-old Caleb McLaughlin (a former Young Simba in The Lion King in 2012-2014).  At first I thought that McLaughlin was overacting, perhaps because he’s so young and relatively inexperienced or perhaps because he’s . . . well, 13.  He seemed to be jumping around the stage, speaking too fast, over-emoting.  But I got to see I was most likely wrong.  Maybe McLaughlin needed a beat to slip into the performance, but I saw that this was his character—he was just thrilled to be with Nukain, whom he not only admired, but clearly adored.  He was delighted to be helping the older man paint his flowers—and when Nukain asks Bokkie to start the painting on The Big One, McLaughlin’s Bokkie was just incredulous.  Never before had he actually painted with his friend—clean his brushes, stir the cans of bright colored paint, hand the artist the right brush with the right color, but never actually paint!  And when Nukain submits abjectly to Elmarie’s demand that he remove the painting of his story from the face of the boulder and replace it with a flower, the look of loss and incomprehension on McLaughlin’s face was the clue to what little Bokkie would become when he turned into Jonathan Sejake, the grown man, the teacher.  It also told why, 22 years later, the grown-up Bokkie would come back to Revolver Creek to restore the painting—to restore his friend’s honor, his humanity.  The contrast between McLaughlin’s high energy and brightness and Brown’s softness and, even when Nukain is excited about the work, emotional self-control is, in a way, the manifestation of the gap between the old South Africa and the new. 

Yaegel T. Welch as Jonathan was new enough to the role that the theater’s announcer explained that there was a prompter on book in the theater in case Welch needed the assist.  (Welch replaced Sahr Ngaujah, who was injured in a “car-related incident.”  Welch took over the role on 2 June following temporary replacement Kevin Mambo who performed the part from 20 to 31 May.)  Welch not only never did, his character portrayal was as fully realized as any of his longer-serving castmates’.  To Welch’s detriment, the character of Jonathan is written with less personal warmth than either Nukain or Bokkie—he’s a vehicle for the author to have his say about the changes in the new South Africa since 1994—except when he speaks of Mabusa’s painting; then he gets humanized.  But Welch came across, nonetheless, as forthright and strong and in no way artificial.  He was given a difficult task by both the playwright and the director, but he pulled it off admirably.  His passion for the topic was never in question.

The lone woman and lone white character, Elmarie, was portrayed by Bianca Amato (who’s performed previously in South Africa in a number of plays, though none by Fugard) in another difficult part.  Elmarie stands in for all Afrikaners, boers, and white South Africans.  She’s a symbol, almost more than a real person.  Nonetheless, Amato acquitted herself well, supercilious and haughty in act one, patronizing and condescending—she brings lunch for the painters, but it’s leftovers from her own table, scraps, as it were.  She won’t comprehend the significance of Nukain’s “story” as painted on The Big One—and if she did understand it, it might actually frighten her.  In act two, after her husband has been disabled by a stroke, her neighbor boers have been horribly murdered in their home, and marauders are stalking the region seeking revenge on the Afrikaners, she still feels that she’s done nothing wrong all those years of dominating and suppressing the native majority, depersonalizing them, denying them identity.  All this was communicated in Amato’s oblivious and blind depiction of Elmarie.  Amato managed to show us a woman who appeared cold and unfeeling on the outside while intimating that there was a seething mix of fear and even anger somewhere inside—but which she never let out to be seen by others.  In act two, Amato added a measure of resentment to that inner turmoil, none of it visible except in an occasional wince or grimace that passed quickly across her face or around her mouth until she could regain control and suppress it.  Amato also had a sadness to her speech and voice that revealed more than her words.

A word must be said here about the South African dialects and accents these (American) actors adopted for The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek.  Nukain, Bokkie, and Jonathan all affect native African accents, Zulu or Xtosa, the languages spoken in that part of South Africa, while Elmarie speaks with an Afrikaans accent.  (There are also lots of words, mostly slang, from several indigenous languages that Fugard uses in his dialogue and Signature thoughtfully provided a short glossary.)  Barbara Rubin served as dialect coach for the production and, to my ear, she and the cast did a marvelous job of absorbing the speech patterns appropriate to each character.  It’s not an easy task with accents we Americans aren’t very familiar (though Bianca Amato lists several shows presented in South Africa in her bio), but it was very effective in establishing the milieu of the whole production and, in the cases of Afrikaner Elmarie and native Africans Nukain, Bokkie, and Jonathan, the contrast between their cultural heritages and, therefore, social and political positions in South Africa.

Now it’s time to see where the press stood on The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek.  In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli wrote, “The show can be repetitive,” particularly when Jonathan tells us over and over that Nukain’s painting on The Big One was his story, but she added that the play “tackles the two sides’ fear and anger in a surprisingly gentle way.”  Elysa Gardner of USA Today complained that the second act “feels longer than the clock suggests” and that the pacing of the first act is too slow.  Nonetheless, Fugard, Gardner reported, approached the “difficult, balanced conversation” of Elmarie and Jonathan in the second act “with predictable intelligence and compassion.”  She praised the “passionate and compelling performances” Fugard elicited from the cast.  Newsday’s  Linda Winer, exulting that “[s]tories seem to topple from the imagination and memory of Athol Fugard,” concluded that Painted Rocks is little more than one of the writer’s “simple stories that, before we know it, swell to become the rich, uneasy historical and personal journey of his country.”  “That's pretty much it,” Winer summed up, “except for the beautiful acting, tales of horrible violence and contrasting emotions.”  She concluded: “And from such simplicity, Fugard, once again, stamps indelible human faces on faraway reports of the world's news.”

In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz quipped, “Being stuck between a rock and a hard place takes on new meaning in writer/director Athol Fugard’s stirring new drama,” which “makes a universal point about racial and class conflict.”  The first half of Painted Rocks “grabs as tight as a Vise-Grip,” reported Dziemianowicz, but the second act “slackens slightly as conversations get mired in the past and in exposition.”  The Newsman continued, “His play isn’t ground-breaking, but his script has plainspoken eloquence and the cast is first-rate” and declared in the final assessment: “You’d have to have a heart of granite not to be moved watching empathy tentatively bloom in a garden of rocks.”  The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood called Painted Rocks a “tender, ruminative new play” which suffers a few “staid patches” that are “animated” by the “impassioned ” performances.  Brendan Lemon in the Financial Times called the Signature première a “clear, touching, occasionally blunt two-act evening” whose conflict “is a bit too large and looming to make for easily contained drama,” though Fugard “has directed assuredly.” 

In New York magazine, Jesse Green complained of the “old tropes” Fugard employs and his “creaky dramaturgy” by which “actions are recalled, then reenacted, then recalled again later, and re-reenacted.”  The play’s dialogue, the man from New York lamented, “sounds like notes toward an ideology rather then expressions of it.”  Painted Rocks, Green asserted, “meant no doubt to be as timeless as Mabusa’s flowers, seems timebound instead,” more like Fugard’s work at the start of his career than later ones.  The New York review-writer suggested that the power of such plays is “not always sufficiently theatrical, especially when they approach his great subject—the distortion of human relations on both sides by the apartheid state—as head-on as this one does.”  The Village Voice’s Miriam Felton-Dansky, describing Painted Rocks as “a new play about old wounds,” reported, “Though its inspiration is abstract art, Painted Rocks is surprisingly literal, missing the striking poetry of Fugard's early work.”  Nonetheless, Felton-Dansky concluded that “the force of Fugard's subject is so strong, the devastation of racism still so keen, that even this less-developed drama carries emotional weight.”  In the New Yorker, “Goings On About Town” called Painted Rocks a “beautiful play” whose “effect is heartbreaking.”  Although the “stunningly acted” first act is “moving,” act two, also “gorgeously played . . ., is a bit talky.”

Marilyn Stasio of Variety dubbed Painted Rocks a “carefully built play” which is “thoughtful and poignant.”  While the first act alone “would . . . leave the audience shaken,” wrote Stasio, with act two, “Fugard broadens the meaning of Nukain’s masterpiece by placing that powerful symbol of a man’s human dignity in a modern-day context.”  In the Hollywood Reporter, Frank Scheck labeled Painted Rocks “an intimate theatrical gem,” though the play “becomes a bit stilted and didactic” in the second half.  Scheck lamented that “it loses some of its elegantly simple power” by “[l]urching into unconvincing melodrama.”  He added that “the staging is too leisurely, and not all of the dialogue rings true.”  The HR reviewer concluded, however, that the play is “deeply moving nonetheless,” with Fugard drawing praiseworthy performances from his cast.  Adam Feldman of Time Out New York, asserting that Fugard’s play “derives much of its initial power from simplicity,” found that “although Fugard’s portrait of Mabusa is not deeply detailed, it evokes the suffering of generations of South Africans.”  The man from TONY, however, felt that “the play should have ended” after act one because the second act “consists of rehashing and explaining what was clear enough in the play’s first half.”  Entertainment Weekly’s Maya Stanton determined that Painted Rocks’ “ themes of racial tension and a desire for rapprochement are all too timely, echoing conversations that are sadly still ongoing today.”  While Fugard drew on “powerful source material,” Stanton felt, however, that “some of Fugard’s writing choices leave a bit to be desired,” despite “impeccable performances.”  The EW reviewer summed up by averring, “Unfortunately, it’s a place where backward attitudes toward race and humanity were the norm, and one that serves as a sharp reminder that we haven’t learned much from recent history.  Still, with pieces like Fugard’s contributing to the cultural dialogue, perhaps those lessons will finally take.” 

In the on-line press, Tulis McCall lamented on New York Theatre Guide that though Fugard’s story bears a “tone of . . . sincerity,” the writer’s “ bite has lost some teeth.”  The playwright “spends much of his stage time on exposition,” McCall reported, and therefore “loses the impact that Fugard intends.”  On TheaterMania, Zachary Stewart noted that after turning to more personal subjects after the fall of apartheid, Fugard’s Painted Rocks “represents a return to politics,” resulting in a play “as insightful as [his] earlier works, with an added layer of nuance.”  The play is “potent” and “subtly poignant,” wrote TM’s Stewart.  CurtainUp’s Elyse Sommer saw that the painting of The Big One in act one becomes a “story about how a new democracy brings its own challenges” while in act two, “[t]he big rock now poses a new challenge” in that it represents “the future of South Africa [that] will lose its promise without the old and new generation listening to each other.”  “Fugard makes no attempt to tone down the polemical flavor of the dialogue,” noted Sommer, “and the tenor of that dialogue deserves attention.”  She concluded, “There are no surprises in this second act confrontation or its only slightly hopeful ending.”  Characterizing Painted Rocks as “Athol Fugard’s beautiful new play” in Talkin’ Broadway, Matthew Murray found it inevitable that “the playwright would see in Mabusa’s outsider art creations a powerful statement about legacy.”  Fugard, said Murray, followed his habitual technique “of making the political personal” and has crafted a play that illuminates “an epic puzzle that depicts a country, community, and one small group of individuals in the path of a momentous transformation that may flatten them all.” 

As I observed in my report on A. R. Gurney’s What I Did Last Summer, by coincidence I saw The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek the afternoon right after seeing Summer and the two plays share some superficial aspects.  Both plays depict a young boy—14-year-old Charlie in Summer and 11-year-old Bokkie in Painted Rocks—who’s fundamentally changed by a relationship with an artist-mentor who’s a kind of outsider.  The two boys grow up to be men who affect others: in Summer, Charlie becomes a playwright like Gurney; in Painted Rocks, Bokkie becomes a teacher.  Gurney’s change and the upheaval that follows is less powerful than Fugard’s partly because of Painted Rocks’ connection to the end of apartheid, and partly because we see the man the boy grows into because of the influence of the artist.

For me, this makes Painted Rocks the better play.  Gurney’s dramatic circumstances are brittle and artificial and his characters are only sketched in, leaving the play with little emotional (or intellectual) impact on me.  Fugard has used two momentous periods in South African and world events to propel his tale of growing up and coming of age—which in Painted Rocks is also the portrayal of a society and a culture growing up—and he uses it to illuminate a continuing repercussion of the regime of apartheid.  Gurney’s story is of little moment for anyone other than the participants and the outcome of the encounter of Charlie and the artist-manquée Anna is nearly a cliché.  Gurney’s backdrop is World War II, potentially as powerful a milieu as apartheid South Africa, but that’s all it is in Summer—a backdrop.  Minority-ruled South Africa is the environment of Painted Rocks, the atmosphere hanging over everyone’s lives and permeating the whole society.  In Summer, Charlie says he changed because of what Anna taught him; in Painted Rocks, we see the impact on Bokkie wielded by Nukain. 

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