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A CurtainUp Review
Boesman and Lena

That's the way it is. When I want to cry, you want to laugh. — Lena
Boesman and Lena
Zainab Jah and Sahr Ngaujah (Photo: Joan Marcus)
After fifty years, Athol Fugard's play Boesman and Lena is recognized as one of the classics among the South African playwright's prolific and lauded canon. That doesn't make its emotional demands upon its actors or even the physical demands upon its audience any less of a challenge during its intermissionless two hours (previous productions have used an intermission).

I have only vague memories of seeing it for the first time in 1992 in a production that the author directed for the Manhattan Theatre Club. I am pleased to see it back and so impressively directed by South African theatre artist Yael Farber. Just recently appreciated Farber's Mies Julie, her excellent adaptation of the Strindberg play.

That Boesman and Lena tested my endurance is not necessarily a complaint as the drama itself is purposefully calculated to do just that as we watch the actions and listen to the words of a . "colored" couple who have become nomads — ejected and referred to as "garbage" in their own land by its white overseers as they repeat and repeat the same routines that define the rootless lives that they have been allotted.

Few will be surprised that this play and its characters remain sadly timely in view of the numbers of people who today have been made homeless and displaced within their own homeland and who face the same situations as do this play's title characters.

The plight of Fugard's characters as they continue their struggle for existence in an almost existential wasteland can be seen as an unapologetic homage to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot Except for a few exceptional moments, it is largely humorless.

But this is Fugard's allegory in which his resilient, but combative, wanderers forage out a makeshift, temporary home on the mudflats. Through them Fugard gives us a powerful sense of their extinguishable humanity. There is no mistaking them for their kinship to Vladimir and Estrogon. Their interpreters - Sahr Ngaujah (Boesman) and Zainab Jah ((Lena) have done their work superbly.

Remembered for creating the title role in Fela , Ngauhah doesn't relinquish his grip for a second on Boesman's furiously macho facade. Jah is captivating despite her rags and rants.

An abstracted sense of place has been created by designer Susan Hilerty's bleak unwelcoming setting (impressive atmospheric lighting by Amith Chandrashaker). The ground is the inhospitable South African mudflats in which only a single dead tree remains. Its barren limbs provide the only shelter for the resilient but combative wanderers.

Lena and Boesman fight as constantly as they're continually forced out of the various hovels they have made home in apartheid-governed South Africa. They may have their roots in their country's painfully inhuman history, but they also appear to us as carrying the same burden as the devalued and often demoralized immigrants at our own borders.

Boesman (Sahr Ngaujah) and Lena (Zainab Jah) make their entrance slowly down an aisle, carrying along with them the few possessions they need to just survive. For what it's worth, the heavy load on Boesman's back is not quite as formidable as the tower of items that Lena balances on her head.

Survival also means testing the behavioral limits of the other —baiting, berating, provoking and challenging. She has the bruises to show from his beatings prompted by his fear that she may choose to leave him. This is exacerbated with the arrival of an old man (Thomas Silcott) who moves tentatively and speaks at times in a Bantu Xhosa language that neither Boesman nor Lena understand. Lena welcomes him, invites him to stay and eat and then begins to regale him with stories that he can't understand.

Fugard's characters in general are known for lengthy speeches that tend toward the extraordinarily lyrical and colorful. Some of this becomes wearying even as we marvel at their stamina. But it's also poignantly relevant as we identify with their plight.

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Boesman and Lenaby Athol Fugard
Directed by Yael Farber
Cast: Zainab Jah as Lena, Sahr Ngaujah as Boesman and Thomas Silcott as Old African

Lighting Design: Amith Chandrashaker
Sound Design: Matt Hubbs
Fight Direction: Unkledave's Fight-House
Dialect Coach: Barbara Rubin: Stage Manager
Production Stage Manager: Cherie B. Tay Running Time: 2 hours, no intermission
Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center
From 2/05/19; opening 2/25/19; closing 3/17/19.
Reviewed by SimonSaltzman 2/27/19

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