A CurtainUp Review
The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek
By Elyse Sommer
I hope he has a chance to visit the new Whitney Museum's first show, America is Hard to See, as I did on the afternoon before seeing an evening performance of his new play inspired by Nukain Mabusa who for years worked as a farm laborer, painting on the rocks on a dusty hillside of the farm community of Revolver Creek.
Mr. Fugard would appreciate the way the curators have used the museum's larger space to put the work of less known artists from the Whitney's vast collection in the same gallery space as more familiar works by its stars. Those lesser knowns include an outsider artist, George Traylor who, like the South African Nukain Mabusa, didn't paint on conventional canvases but fashioned his canvases from found cardboard containers. (See a sample here)
Even if Nukain Mabusa were American and would thus fit the all-American story of modern art that the Whitney exhibit chronicles, his work would be hard to move from its original location on the hillside near his home in the South African farm area of Revolver Creek. Like Traylor's images, Mabusa's were primitive — mostly geometrical patterns of dots, stripes and squares.
The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek isn't the first time a playwright has used an artist's story or the creation of a particular work or group of works. John Logan had great success with Red set in Mark Rothko's studio when he worked on his famous large red canvases (one of which is part of the current Whitney show). The high point in that play was a scene when the actors playing Rothko and his assistant actually work on one of those works.
One of the most dramatic scenes in Fugard's play also shows a painting actually being created. The scene is the rock garden that the playwright's fictional Nukain (Leon Addison Brown) has worked on in his spare time for years. The time is 1981, when the first rumblings of apartheid's end are heard. The "canvas" is the biggest rock in that garden which he's somehow found himself unable to work on; that is, until Bokkie (Caleb McLauglin), his 11-year-old ward, shows up with a wagon full of paint cans to challenge and assist him to finally do so.
Into the painting on that big rock Fugard has embedded the theme and essence of his dramatic faction. The image that emerges from that paint session is more than another of the frail old laborer-painter's "flowers" but an image depicting his personal story — the story of a man who, despite years of being unseen as a fellow human being by his Afrikaner bosses, found a way to create a self image through his passion for making those rocks blossom with color.
The real Nukain Masuba's history serves as the play's inspiration, but it's only a starting point. Tackling that big rock not only freed Nukain to tell his story, but it also enabled Fugard to build his own story about how a new democracy brings its own challenges. Thus, when the play moves forward twenty years in the second act, Nukain is long dead. The colorful rocks on set designer Christopher H. Barreca's hilltop are now faded by years of sun and rain.
But the effect on young Bokkie of helping Nukain create that self-portrait is long-ranging. The farm owner (never seen) and his wife Elmarie (Bianca Amato) for whom Nukain works have encouraged his rock painting by supplying him with paint, Elmarie's hostile reaction to the painting causes the boy's independent spirit to rebel leads to a potent reunion in post-arpatheid 2003 between the now embattled and embittered Elmarie and the grown-up Bokkie now known as Jonathan Sejake ((Sahr Ngaujah).
The big rock now poses a new challenge for the Afrikaner for whom the new constitution has brought marauders and killers from black men angry at not having improved their lives despite the end of arpartheid. It's also a challenge for men like Jonathan who did achieve a better life, but who still yearn for a way for people like him and Elmarie to see and understand each others. As a first step towards meeting that challenge he wants to restore the faded image on that big rock in honor of its creator. Since Elmarie still owns the land he needs her permission.
There are no surprises in this second act confrontation or its only slightly hopeful ending. Fugard makes no attempt to tone down the polemical flavor of the dialogue and the tenor of that dialogue deserves attention, for as the Nukain's story will remain gone from that rock unless Jonathan is allowed to work on it -- so the future of South Africa will lose its promise without the old and new generation listening to each other.
The performances are all outstanding. Young Caleb McLaughlin (a stage veteran whose credits include playing young Simba in The Lion King) is especially good.
The production values overall are, like all Signature productions, wonderful. The stage hands get quite a workout preparing the rock garden for its second act transformation. The dialogue includes many non-English expressions, but no worries — The program includes a helpful glossary
For more factual and fuller details about the real rock painter and images of his work check out the this website: About Nukain Masuba