Written in 1969, Boesman and Lena was first seen in New York in 1970 in an acclaimed production at the original Circle-in-the-Square starring legends James Earl Jones and Ruby Dee (who won a Drama Desk Award). It was a stunning, revelatory play staged while apartheid was in full force in South Africa.
The two main characters find themselves on a Beckettian journey directly paralleling Waiting for Godot, but without Godot’s awkward humor. In both two characters are isolated in a desolate location with little hope for salvation.
The production of Boesman and Lena at The Pershing Square Signature Center directed with attention to every detail by Yaël Farber is stark and unforgiving in a way that would have been shocking in 1970. Even though apartheid has been lifted, this play still resonates with its bleak display of human survival in the face of unimaginable terrors and its condemnation of racial inequity.
Boesman (Sahr Ngaujah, in a fearsome performance displaying everything disgusting about male domination) and Lena (Zainab Jah, stunningly detailed in every way) have been trekking away from the destruction of their shantytown by whites. Boesman chooses to stop in a god-forsaken spot—brilliantly evocative scenery, an almost empty raked stage with a sole bare tree, shades of Beckett, and costumes, by Susan Hilferty—to set up an improvised tent that will provide little protection from their stormy emotional battles.
They battle constantly with Lena the most vocal, her tirades against Boesman’s physical and emotional violence growing more desperate as the story progresses. A taciturn Old African played by Thomas Silcott, who evokes a world-weary dignity and a life of trauma, becomes the catalyst for the emotional cataclysm to which the play builds.
As Boesman builds his lean-to, Lena adopts the Old African in direct opposition to Boesman’s orders. She sits with him, wrapping him in one of the two blankets she and Boesman share, meanwhile telling her story in great detail. (Boesman later tears the blanket off the two of them to spite Lena.)
The African rewards her with a mumbled, rambling speech in his native Bantu. The only word he utters in the entire evening that she understands is “Lena” which pleases her and which she takes as an expression of kindness, something she sorely lacks in her life.
Lena even lets Boesman keep the two bottles of wine that would ease her into much needed sleep in exchange for permitting her to comfort the old African gentleman.
The lives of the three characters disintegrate even more as the night progresses. The entropy that is their lives speeds up bringing them even lower, leading to an ending that is almost too difficult to watch, a finale caused directly by the fate of the Old African.
All the performances are brilliant—although Ngaujah, the original Fela in Fela!, tends toward monolithic machismo—but Jah’s work is extraordinary in its total immersion in the character: Lena’s voice, her stance, her pained movement and her ability to find every grace note in Fugard’s dark language take the play to unimaginable heights. She is worth a visit to the Signature to see acting at its finest and most heartbreaking.
The subtle lighting of Amith Chandrashaker and the sound design of Matt Hubbs create a mood totally in synch with the mood of the play.
Despite the political changes in South Africa, Boesman and Lena is still an important play. It speaks to so many issues in an intimate, graphic way: racial injustice, sexual inequality, the plight of immigrants and economic disparity in a first rate production.
Boesman and Lena (extended through March 24, 2019)
The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theater, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org
Running time: two hours with no intermission