Playwright: Yael Farber ( adapted from August Strindberg's "Miss Julie" )
At: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: 773-871-3000; VictoryGardens.org; $15-$60. Runs through: June 24
Athol Fugard's portraits of apartheid-era South Africa served as the moral lens for his nation. Post-apartheid works such as 1996's Valley Song offered a hopeful look at healing the country's wounds.
No such balm finds its way into South African playwright Yael Farber's Mies Julie, which premiered to acclaim in the 2012 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The Chicago premiere at Victory Gardens, directed with blast-furnace intensity by Dexter Bullard, builds uponand then bludgeons throughthe skeletal structure that August Strindberg's 1888 naturalist classic of class and gender struggle provides.
It's Freedom Day in 2012the national day of celebration for the end of apartheid 18 years earlier. As in the original, Mies Julie ( Heather Chrisler ), the daughter of an Afrikaner widower landowner with a brutal reputation, is dancing with the farm workers as the play begins. She's also tracking dirt all over the clean-but-cracked tile floor that Christine ( Celeste Williams ) has scrubbed by hand. John ( Jalen Gilbert ), Christine's son, polishes the master's boots and dreams of escape.
By making Christine John's mother instead of his fiancée ( as in the original ), Farber drives home the themes of resentment and ownership. Christine raised Julie after her mother blew her brains out in the kitchen. Williams' Christine aches to find connection with her own ancestors, buried on land just beneath the kitchen floor, while John feels trapped on a farm where he was brutalized by others, white and Black. John and Julie are two semi-orphaned children trying to soothe their sense of emotional abandonment through the sexual variety.
It's tricky territory, but Farber's roadmap creases along the lines of narratives familiar to our own racist history of using "miscegenation" as an excuse for lynching black men. At the same time, though Chrisler's Julie is undeniably manipulative and mercurial, her performance shows us the aching wounds of an isolated young woman who fears falling into the hellscape of her mother's history. "If you are sensitive out here on this dry landyou don't make it," she tells John.
Farber's play also invokes the ancestral spirits through T. Ayo Alston's "ukhokho" ( the Zulu word for "ancestor" ). Alston appears at key moments, singing original songs that add a spectral texture to the gritty sexual and verbal battles between John and Julie. They are both fighting for a foothold on the land beneath them and looking for a means of escape. The tragedy is that their country's history won't allow for either without a bloody cost.
Chrisler and Gilbert go for broke here, but Bullard's staging allows fleeting moments of tenderness, with Farber's script weaving in broken poetic interludes about the dusty land around them. Black snakelike roots encircle Kurtis Boetcher's set, suggesting just how difficult it is to break through the entangled bloody history of racism and colonialism.