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You’d think Athol Fugard, legendary chronicler of apartheid-era South Africa, would need new subject matter these days. Distressingly, not so: Apartheid’s aftermath offers plenty of dramatic conflict, as Fugard shows in The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek, a new play about old wounds.
Inspired by the life of outsider artist Nukain Mabusa, Painted Rocks unfolds in a rock garden, among brightly patterned boulders decorated by Nukain (Leon Addison Brown), an aging laborer who spends Sundays making art. Today, alongside his grandson Jonathan (Caleb McLaughlin), he creates his masterpiece, painting his own life story on the largest rock. But the paint’s still wet when Elmarie (Bianca Amato), the white landowner’s wife, casually demands he destroy it in favor of an inoffensive design — summarily dismissing Nukain’s art and his life.
Decades later Jonathan (Sahr Ngaujah), now grown, returns to restore the faded paint. Apartheid is history, a new constitution is in place. But when he encounters an elderly Elmarie, lingering bitterness and racism erupt, and Jonathan discovers how little has changed.
Though its inspiration is abstract art, Painted Rocks is surprisingly literal, missing the striking poetry of Fugard’s early work. Emotional depths are dutifully plumbed, rights and wrongs examined. Still, the force of Fugard’s subject is so strong, the devastation of racism still so keen, that even this less-developed drama carries emotional weight.