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Boesman and Lena

Theatre Review by James Wilson - February 25, 2019

Sahr Ngaujah and Zainab Jah
Photo by Joan Marcus

The setting looks oddly familiar: A winding road cuts through the expansive nothingness, and the atmosphere is dark and foreboding. Precariously standing in the center of the desolate, muddy terrain is a single leafless tree (or is it a shrub?). Soon, a pair of burdened travelers wearing tattered clothes and carrying the weight of the world trudge into the wasteland. At first glance, they appear to be the tramps from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, but once this homeless husband and wife duo starts bickering, they seem less like Vladimir and Estragon and closer in comparison to George and Martha from Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It turns out, though, they are a different pair entirely. They are in fact, Boesman and Lena, the title characters from Athol Fugard's 1969 play currently receiving a lacerating revival by New York's Signature Theatre.

Boesman (Sahr Ngaujah) and Lena (Zainab Jah), who are described in the play as a "Coloured" man and woman, are homeless and perpetually wandering through South Africa during apartheid. They are reviled in their own country and treated as refuse by the white oppressors who persistently and viciously raze temporary and makeshift housing colonies. As Boesman explains, "We're whiteman's rubbish. That's why he's so fed-up with us. He can't get rid of his rubbish. He throws it away, we pick it up. Wear it. Sleep in it. Eat it. We're made of it now. His rubbish is people."

On another level, the play shows the brutal effects of racism both on and within the Coloured and Black communities. Fugard deftly reveals how oppression breeds oppression. Boesman treats Lena cruelly, mocking her in front of Whites and hitting her as he acts on his own boiling rage. She in turn lashes out at her husband. Rather than finding comfort in their shared misery, they are in a near-constant bout of verbal and physical assaults on each other.

A wandering Old African (Thomas Silcott), who is described as Black and therefore of a lower caste than Boesman and Lena, joins the couple, and Lena instinctively tries to comfort and befriend the man. He speaks only Afrikaans, so the barriers between them are made even more impenetrable. Her husband, on the other hand, is spiteful and violent toward the man, referring to him as excrement and worse.

Thomas Silcott, Sahr Ngaujah, and Zainab Jah
Photo by Joan Marcus

Bleak, angry, and violent, Boesman and Lena is a difficult play to watch, and director Yaƫl Farber does not make it any easier in her production choices. The two-act play is performed without intermission, so it is an emotionally draining two hours. The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre is an intimate space, and with the actors entering and exiting through the house, the audience is placed in the center of the action.

As Lena, Jah is utterly and scarily convincing. As the long-suffering wife, she defiantly shows the bodily bruises she has endured, and the actress imbues the performance with a wrath that is rooted in both racial persecution and domestic subjugation. At times her character reacts with a wail of protest, yet at one point she also maliciously toys with sadistic revenge, knowing how she might manipulate apartheid's social tyranny in her favor. But there are also moments of profound humanity and gentleness, particularly as she comforts the Old African.

Ngaujah is equally strong. His Boesman is a seething, dangerous presence as he casually inflicts cruelty on all those with whom he comes in contact. Yet, the actor presents the character as a vicious byproduct of the society that created him.

Silcott is a rather large imposing presence, but his Old African is a tragic, pathetic figure. Considered the lowest of the low, his character drifts from place to place, and in the meantime is spurned, beaten, and castigated.

Susan Hilferty's sets (and Hilferty also designed the spot-on ragtag costumes), Amith Chandrashaker's lighting, and Matt Hubbs's sound eerily and evocatively capture the South African mud flats and the awesome indifference of the natural world in which Boesman and Lena eternally traverse. And like Vladimir and Estragon and George and Martha, they will survive another night and prepare to do battle against the existential forces another day.

Boesman and Lena
Through March 17
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
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