Like good wine, new NY play shows Athol Fugard (82) just gets better

Athol Fugard and The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek from Signature Theatre on Vimeo.

By Barry D. Wood

New York:  Sometimes a respected critic can be dead wrong as when John Simon wrote this in New York Magazine in 1999 after watching Fugard’s The Captain’s Tiger:

The end of apartheid may have brought happiness to multitudes, but for one man it spelled pure disaster. Alas, poor Athol! It took away what was his one subject…

As South Africans know well, life in the new SA can be as complicated and disturbing as it was under the Nats. Post-apartheid SA is the subject of Fugard’s brilliant new play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, which opened this week at New York’s Signature Theatre.

It is set on a farm in Mpumalanga near the Mozambique border. The year is 1981. In the first act we meet farm laborer Nukain, an old man who spends his Sundays painting colorful patterns on rocks that adorn the crest of a koppie.  In the company of young friend, 11-year-old Bokkie, Nukain is about to paint the ‘the big one,’ the last and biggest rock, the capstone of his efforts.

Seated before the rocks, Nukain shares with the boy the lessons gained from a life of toil, walking from farm to farm in search of work. Referring to whites, he says almost casually, “they don’t see us.”

Encouraged by Bokkie to curtail his reflections and complete the task at hand, Nukain finally gets up and paints two large eyes on the largest rock.  The work continues until the madam, Elmarie, the wife of the Afrikaans farmer, arrives bringing a plate of food.

While the subsequent interaction is cordial it is redolent of the master servant exchanges of olden days.  Nukain, we later learn, died the next day.

In the second act it is 2003 and Bokkie is now Jonathan, a school principal in Barberton. He has returned to the koppie with a backpack of paint cans to refresh the colours of his mentor’s faded art.

At once Jonathan is confronted by Elmarie pointing a loaded pistol, demanding to know what he is doing. Frantic words are exchanged as she calls security. Jonathan desperately tells Elmarie he is Bokkie, the boy she once knew.

She finally remembers. The tension eases, the emergency call is rescinded. At last these two central characters begin to talk.  This interaction– the educated middle class African and the ageing Afrikaner woman– is the heart of the play.

We learn more about Elmarie and Jonathan. Her husband is incapacitated by a stroke, their neighbors on the next farm, the Potgieters, have been brutally murdered by intruders. Jonathan, who ran away from the farm shortly after Nukain’s death, spent formative years in Zimbabwe where he was educated. He returns home, he says, after Robert Mugabe turned from being liberator to monster.

Fugard recently told an interviewer that he wanted to “take a look at what one of the central issues we have to resolve in SA is. ….at the heart of our problems is the relationship of the Afrikaner on the one side and the black South African on the other.”

Fugard says Painted Rocks was inspired by the life of Nukain Mabusa, an ‘outsider artist’ who did paint rocks, of which there are photographs. Mabusa died in 1981.

After living for a time in California, Fugard now spends most of the year at his home in the Eastern Cape. His mother’s maiden name, incidentally, was Potgieter.

Athol Fugard is not just South Africa’s most acclaimed playwright, he is among the world’s most highly regarded dramatist. As he approaches his 83d birthday, his narrative power burns as brightly as ever. While I watched Painted Rocks in New York’s Signature Theatre, Fugard was perched in a nearby seat.

This dissection of people dealing with new realities is as contemporary and pertinent as any of Fugard’s many plays were during apartheid. There is rich material in post-apartheid SA and Fugard is skillful in presenting it.

*Barry Wood first interviewed Athol Fugard in Johannesburg in 1978.