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The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

They don't look like any flowers you've ever seen. No stems. No petals. No buzzing bees determined to elicit from them, and then spread anew, the basic elements of life. But the essential components of existence may nonetheless be found in the vibrant colors, exciting crosshatch patterns, and meticulous dedication displayed in each bloom. And, whether taken individually or collectively, they tell a tale of a place and people with a rich history that is too often lost to the ravages of time, and is in need of the kind of permanent preservation nature tends to disfavor.

Why the outdoor stone flower garden created by Nukain Mabusa both doesn't receive this treatment and does is the central issue of Athol Fugard's beautiful new play The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, which just opened at the Pershing Square Signature Center. Fugard's career has largely been consumed with documenting the effects of the South African apartheid, so it makes sense that the playwright would see in Mabusa's outsider art creations a powerful statement about legacy, and the vital importance of maintaining both even when doing so becomes impossibly difficult.

After all, when we first encounter the "flowers," they've already begun to fade, even though their creator is still very much alive. Nukain has devoted himself to "planting" seed after seed, and helping them sprout; he doesn't know exactly how many there are in the garden, but it's probably more than 100. Though he values his works, he apparently has no illusions that they're any more eternal than average beds of roses, tulips, or daisies. Nor, it seems, does he especially care, because, gorgeous as his garden may be, he doesn't believe anything in it truly reflects him.

It's not long before we learn why: Revolver Creek is owned by a white family, and nothing in it is technically his. Like any gardener, he's been laboring exclusively for someone else's benefit. That's why he hopes that his last and grandest creation will reflect a deeper aesthetic. The last and largest boulder on the property has remained unstained (except for the occasional bird droppings, that is), an imposing challenge to anyone who believes the earth, or at least our perception of it, can be tamed. And Nukain, who fears he has no flowers left in him, doesn't want to force his will upon the stone.

Soon, he discovers instead that he has a much more important story to tell: his own. As it turns out, his vision is far more sweeping, and the mural he wants to inscribe relates the burden of many black South Africans as they've traveled down roads with their feet in chains but their minds dreaming of rainbows. And so the eightysomething Nukain (Leon Addison Brown), aided by his 11-year-old assistant, Bokkie (Caleb McLaughlin), begins to paint, and in doing so ignites a kind of revolution that will require more than 20 years to completely play itself out.

Besides Nukain and Bokkie, the key figures include Elmarie (Bianca Amato), the woman whose family owns Revolver Creek, and Jonathan (Sahr Ngaujah), a young black man who has a close relationship to Nukain and longs to give his story stone everything he can't. The characters reflect one of Fugard's signature techniques, of making the political personal, and over the two decades the play covers, we see the crucial roles all four play in outlining the successes, failures, and uncertainties of their country. For even when apartheid is abolished, as occurs between the first and second acts, there are new battles to be fought, on the ground and in the soul alike.

The meatiest skirmishes occur, interestingly enough, in the second act, when Fugard shows just how high a price Elmarie and her people have paid for their past transgressions. But he views her as only one part of the equation. The strongest message in The Painted Rocks of Revolver Creek has nothing to do with the horrors of apartheid—those are assumed and explicit, though they occur almost entirely offstage—but the symbiotic relationship between the races, how each has provided something of value the other cannot easily acknowledge and, improbably, crafted a potentially great land from just that friction.

The need for reconciliation and tolerance from both sides is palpable, and, as both writer and director, Fugard has brought it out with a razor-edged softness all his own. He highlights the "everyday" nature of the conflicts that underlie the action, letting us view them as disparate outposts in a much broader struggle, and making the remarkable betrayals and truces along the way that much more effective. Christopher H. Barreca's set even resembles a burned-out war zone, the flowers looking at once like corpses polluting the landscape and beacons of hope for a lasting peace to come.

All the combatants are superbly rendered by the actors. Brown's Nukain is choked with resignation, and you can feel from him the terrified certainty that nothing will ever change, and he'll never be remembered as more than the transitory figure he is. Yet Brown buries that outlook so deep that it informs his behavior without showing itself, until circumstances force Nukain to recognize that hiding the truth will no longer help him. It's an outstanding, bracing performance that captures with pinpoint acuity a set-in-his-ways man who can still, much to his shock, be surprised by what occurs around him.

Amato details the other side of the argument expertly, her Elmarie taking for granted just as much as Nukain does in the first act, before she's forced to experience it firsthand in the second; you can all but see the woman cripple under the weight of the realization of what's at stake for her and her neighbors. Ngaujah (best known as the original lead in Fela!) cuts a stark contrast to Brown, bringing a businesslike impetuousness and young man's bravado to a freedom fighter from a very different age. And McLaughlin is terrific at responding to each new assault on Bokkie's innocence and optimism, from elation that transports him to rage that threatens to eat him alive from the inside out.

How Bokkie weathers and overcomes this, and what he learns from doing so, is the spine of the plot of The Painted Rocks of Revolver Creek. But it's just one piece of an epic puzzle that depicts a country, community, and one small group of individuals in the path of a momentous transformation that may flatten them all. They're all looking to understand themselves, and preserve their wisdom and regrets for the generations to come. It's no easy task, Fugard reminds us, but fervent attempts to do so—while keeping in mind the value of the many we meet along the way—are the only way to ever attain a humanity worth cultivating.

The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek
Through June 7
Signature Center at Pershing Square, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, including intermission
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

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