I had the opportunity this past weekend to see Athol Fugard’s new play The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek at the Signature Theater in New York. Fugard has added a nuanced and multi-layered work to his canon. The fact that he is closing in on 83 and still able to grow as a playwright speaks to the power of his voice and to the great well of the stories he still needs to tell.
The play is set in two time periods: 1981 (apartheid era) and 2003 (post-apartheid era). The beginning is deceptively simple. Nukhain (Leon Addison Brown), a worker on a ranch in Mpumalanga Province, spends what little free time he has from his labors to paint rocks (what he refers to as his “flowers”) on the side of a desolate hill. Not many people see them, but this project provides an outlet for his artistic self. But this day is unlike the rest. He faces a giant boulder, the last rock to be painted on the hill. Instead of turning it into a massive flower, he uses it instead as a canvas to tell his own story, to provide his own history. At the same time, he has taken a young worker Bokkie (Caleb McLaughlin) a young worker under his wing. What he has painted frightens and excites both of them. It is unlike anything that he has ever done. However, the mistress of the farm Elmarie (Bianca Amato) shows up and is at first puzzled and then disturbed by this new work. She wants Nukhain to remove it and go back to painting one of his flowers. Bokkie objects, but Nukhain agrees.
The second act jumps ahead over 20 years. Bokkie has now grown up and is a teacher, Jonathan (Sahr Ngaujah). His mission is to restore Nukhain’s painting. After a tug-of-war with Elmarie, he at last has permission to do so.
The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek is a wrenching work. Fugard proves again that he is a master of the genre in that he essentially sneaks up behind the audience at about the 40-minute mark in Act One and hits it in back of the head with a two-by-four (metaphorically speaking). Fugard conveys the complexities of a nation torn apart by years of strife and racial animosity. His great gift of weaving tales of the downtrodden with lyricism and empathy is, of course, present. Here, though, he examines culture, and the threat that black culture posed to the apartheid regime.
So long as Nukhain painted flowers on rocks, it was fine. Beautiful, yes, but with no significance whatsoever. Once, though, he tries to tell his story – which is not particularly political, but because this is South Africa is de facto political – then his work becomes dangerous and must be destroyed. Though physical violence is implied throughout, none is perpetuated on stage. And yet, Elmarie’s determination to remove the painting (which, by the way, appears as an extraordinary piece of African Art) is the greatest violence of them all.
That Fugard is able to convey all the horrors of the apartheid regime in this one understated moment speaks volumes about his talents as an artist. And let us not be mistaken. Though the actions of the play are specific to South Africa, the work speaks as much to any nation where a ruling class seeks to erase the culture of a disenfranchised group. It is a play that needs to be seen, should be seen – it also needs to be a play that is forever cemented in the canon.