The hinterland may look familiar, but Vladimir and Estragon do not. In Athol Fugard’s Boesman and Lena, Waiting for Godot is reworked for South Africa during apartheid. A “Coloured” couple is forced to carry their belongings in their arms and on their heads, unable to find a place to set down their lives without the threat of displacement by the white ruling class. Like Beckett’s work before it, Boesman and Lena is a circular, repetitive play about the hopelessness of life where there’s very little action. Unlike Beckett’s play, its dramatic tension goes slack for long sections and it’s difficult to jump back in when it ramps up again.
In a production directed by Yaël Farber, the talented South African artist whose Mies Julie is currently at Classic Stage, the Godot parallels are more than apparent in the single withered tree (designed by Susan Hilferty) and the overall mood of existential despair. Farber’s production creates an intoxicating atmosphere that immediately transforms the theatre into its location visually, aurally, and even olfactorily via some “hypoallergenic incense.” The soundscape by Matt Hubbs doesn’t try to copy the sounds of the South African mud flats as it weaves in a pulsing musical score that is unnerving, but not obvious. It’s a low-speed heartbeat; it’s the sound of the world pushing in and receding. Amith Chandrashaker’s lighting shifts imperceptibly to emphasize different sections of the empty plain and finds a compelling beauty in the darkness. Hilferty does double duty as the costume designer and the clothes go miles in establishing the wear and tear of the life Boesman and Lena have been forced into. It’s a hard thing to convincingly design “dirty” clothes and scenery, but Hilferty and hair and makeup designer Cookie Jordan find a natural verisimilitude that catapults the audience from the Signature Center into the play’s location.
Sahr Ngaujah is commanding and terrifying as Boesman, a man who still demands to assert his authority even when everything has been stripped away from him. Boesman’s toxic qualities are exacerbated by his feelings of powerlessness at the hands of those who have displaced him and his mistreatment of his wife, Lena, is all the worse as a result. It’s powerful, then, when Lena (Zainab Jah) stands up to him, rejecting his controlling tendencies and essentially telling him to fuck off because things are already as bad as they can get. For Lena, their itinerancy is freeing in a way. She no longer has to stay under Boesman’s thumb.
Jah has the bulk of the lines in Fugard’s two hour, intermission-less play. She talks almost constantly – long streams of consciousness, looping, memory-jogging accounts of where they’ve been, extended tirades against Boesman and his gaslighting. In its repetitiveness, the play is wont to fall out of the taut, attention-grabbing moments of its best sections, but Jah’s performance is so alive that it is a constant pleasure to watch. She is immersed in Lena’s voice and body. There are many moments when Lena’s body language is contorted into weird angles, realigned by the constant walking, by the inability rest, and Jah moves into them fluidly.
Because of its specificity, rather than in spite of it, Farber’s production focuses on the larger, unchanging historical implications of these refugees. Boesman and Lena are the “Coloured” man and woman from South Africa in 1969 when the play was written, but they’re also the millions of refugees denied a home today. Fugard could not have imagined that the couple’s story would continue to have parallels fifty years in the future, and maybe it would be great if it didn’t. Unfortunately, Boesman and Lena are still walking in circles without a home, they just have many different names and faces.