Despite a distinguished career spanning half a century, the celebrated 82-year-old South African playwright, Athol Fugard, still thinks of himself as an “outsider artist.” That personal note adds another layer to his thoughtful and poignant new play, “The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek,” inspired by Nukain Mabusa, a little-known South African outsider artist who devoted his life to decorating the stones and boulders on the hillside farm where he worked as a laborer.
Fugard previously paid his respects to a South African outsider artist, the sculptor Helen Martins, in his 1985 play, “The Road to Mecca,” seen on Broadway in a 2012 production starring Rosemary Harris, Jim Dale and Carla Gugino. Like Martins, the artist identified here as Nukain (and played by the quietly imposing Leon Addison Brown) has had no formal training, but feels obliged to create works of art for some compelling personal reason he can’t express.
When Nukain first appears in 1981, as a very old man wearied by a lifetime of manual labor, he hardly seems capable of lifting a brush, let alone painting the “Big One,” the giant boulder that is to become his final, most ambitious work. His assistant, Bokkie, a slip of a boy played with boundless charm by 13-year-old Caleb McLaughlin (who was Young Simba for two years in “The Lion King”), is beside himself with impatience for the old man to begin work on the “biggest flower” in his rock garden.
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But Nukain can only gaze in silence at the giant summit rock, overwhelmed by the magnitude of his task. “I have got no more flowers in me,” he tells the boy. But if the old artist is fearful of beginning this great undertaking, he is even more fearful of completing it. “I know that he is my last one,” he tells the boy, “so I am frightened.”
Clearly, the time has come for Nukain to entrust both his artistic legacy and his work ethic to his young assistant. First, the old man teaches the boy a traditional Zulu work song, the spirited “We Majola,” which inspires and energizes him. Then, he shows Bokkie how to help his old teacher execute his artistic vision — and find the inspiration to discover his own.
Watching the dead rock come to life is as thrilling for us as it is for Nukain, who, before our eyes, creates a primitive and powerful — and very proud — portrait of himself and his life. The roughly painted rocks on Christopher H. Barreca’s set don’t look anywhere near as vibrant as those in photographs of the real-life Nukain Mabusa at work. But this last work of art is raw and vital — entirely too raw and vital, as it turns out, for Elmarie Kleynhans (Bianca Amato), the Afrikaaner who owns the farm with her husband.
Had the play ended at this point, it would still leave the audience shaken. But in the second act of his carefully built play, Fugard broadens the meaning of Nukain’s masterpiece by placing that powerful symbol of a man’s human dignity in a modern-day context.
It’s now 2003 and little Bokkie, all grown up and going by his given name of Jonathan Sejake (Sahr Ngaujah), has returned to Revolver Creek intending to restore Nukain’s neglected garden of faded stone flowers. Ngaujah (the original star of “Fela!”) handles the self-assured Jonathan with a gentle touch, but there’s an uncomfortable stiffness about his confrontation — and extremely tentative reconciliation — with the widowed Elmarie, who has grown old and lives in constant fear for her life.
The apartheid laws were lifted long ago, and it’s almost a decade since Nelson Mandela was freely elected as president. But subsequent administrations have betrayed his legacy of peace and understanding, and marauding bands are now murdering white farmers (like the old couple on the next farm who were slaughtered two nights ago) and seizing their land. Somehow, a civilized discussion about land rights doesn’t quite cut it.