Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Boesman and Lena

It often occurs to me, especially lately, just how much the trajectory of any life comes down to dumb luck. Sure, people can work hard to change their lot in life, or screw up enough to piss everything away, but ultimately, it's a dizzyingly random combination of birthright, time, place, and culture that results in the access--or lack thereof--to food, water, education, safety from persecution, or parents who will buy your entry into Yale. The three characters in Boesman and Lena, Athol Fugard's 1969 masterwork currently running in a truly humbling revival at Signature Theater, are utterly devoid of luck, dumb or otherwise. Written in response to South Africa's apartheid laws, the play has only become more powerful and sad since apartheid ended. There's just so much need in the world.

Joan Marcus
Living in a place and time that has hierarchized its citizens according to how they look and to whom they've been born, the title characters have in many respects not only numbly accepted but also thoroughly internalized the sick logic that has conscripted their unrelentingly difficult lives. Boesman (Sahr Ngaujah, typically excellent) is brittle and angry and hard, and he regularly takes his powerlessness and frustrations out by beating his partner, Lena (Zainab Jah, remarkable). Lena's trauma manifests itself less violently than Boesman's, but it roils nonetheless: in early monologues, she takes careful count of her bruises and lists all the places she and Boesman have been forced from as a means of reminding herself of her own existence and remaining sanity. Both characters have to work awfully hard not to sink into despair, to give up, to destroy themselves or one another. When an old African man in his death throes (Thomas Silcott) arrives at their campsite, the tension between the couple spikes ever higher. 
This is a deeply unsettling and moving piece of immersive theater that's not easy to sit through and that you should nevertheless try your damnedest to see. I haven't stopped thinking about how painful and dignified it is, how beautifully performed, how shattering. At curtain call of the performance I saw, an old man in the front row stood and repeatedly thanked the actors, who didn't break character as they stood for applause. I was too stunned to chant along with him, but he spoke for me just the same. 

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