Yesterday I saw Athol Fugard’s play The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek performed at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town. The short play is touching and emotional and one of the best I’ve seen! Before opening in South Africa, it débuted at Pershing Square Signature Center in New York City performed by the Signature Theatre Company. Fugard’s play was also performed in Los Angeles at the renowned Fountain Theatre.
Mr. Fugard has written over forty plays. Many of them were made into films. Tsotsi, a moving film based on a novel he wrote in the 1960s, won the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Tsotsi is set in the 1950s in a squalid township outside Johannesburg destroyed by the white community.
“Throughout his long and distinguished career, Fugard has been anatomizing the evils of apartheid and the troubling legacies it left behind. His new play considers both the brutal injustices of apartheid and the violence that roiled South Africa after its dismantling. His work spans the period of apartheid in South Africa through the first democratic elections and Nelson Mandela’s presidency into present day post-apartheid South Africa.”
Inspired by the life of outsider artist Nukain Mabuza, there are three characters in Fugard’s play – Nukain, Bokkie, and Elmarie. Scene One opens with Nukain speaking to young Bokkie about the culture of apartheid and the “moral blindness” it embraced.
The first act takes place on a Sunday morning when the old farm worker performs his chore of painting bright colors on the rocks that dot the dry South African landscape. “The creation of these ‘flowers’ as Nukain calls them, was a task he began years before, and which has become a weekly pleasure he shares with young Bokkie, the 11-year-old boy in his charge.”
“They got eyes but they do not see us”, says the gentle old man to the boy. “Both are black South Africans, and the man’s observation refers to the white farmers for whom he works.”
Much to the “consternation of young Bokkie who is eager to watch him work,” Nukain cannot seem to get started painting the one sizable rock remaining. “Taller than Nukain and a good six feet wide, the rock is a looming final challenge that he shies away from for reasons he cannot quite understand. While he considers the prospects, the energetic young Bokkie tries to cajole and coax him into beginning, and Nukain finds himself reflecting on his life.”
The arrival of Elmarie, the wife of the white farmer who owns the land, “dampens the excitement both Nukain and Bokkie have taken in their work”. Elmarie comments about the colorful design Nukain has painted on the big rock, and casually “insists that he paint over it next week in his more decorative, innocuous style — a suggestion, or rather a demand, that Bokkie angrily rejects.”
“Nukain accepts Elmarie’s demand with the reflexive humility born of a steady diet of privation, dependency, and racism. Bokkie is left with only the wistful thought that in some future day Elmarie and her husband will open their eyes and then see us.”
Tshamano Sebe (Nukain) was born in the Johannesburg suburb of Soweto. He moved to Berlin and became a founding member of the Soyikwa African Theatre group. Sebe returned to South Africa in 1993 where he starred in the SABC hit television series Stokvel and won many awards for his performances in local and international films.
Siya Jantjie (Bokkie) is 11 years old and goes to school in the Cape Town suburb of Rondebosch where he enjoys soccer, playing the piano and marimba, and singing in the choir. Siya also attends the Waterfront Theatre School where he studies tap dancing, modern dancing, drama, and musical theatre. The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek is Siya’s first professional performance. He clearly has a bright future ahead of him.
Anna-Mart Van Der Merwe (Elmarie Kleynhans) is “an award-winning bilingual (English and Afrikaans) actress, best known for her leading roles in local television series.” She has starred in many films and theatre productions.