Credit: Liz Lauren

It would seem that August Strindberg’s daring 1888 psychological drama Miss Julie, about an illicit, destructive, doomed love between a
male servant and his master’s daughter-in a social world built around
knowing one’s place-would transpose perfectly to apartheid-era South
Africa. Injecting a particularly brutal expression of state-sanctioned
antiblack animus into Strindberg’s cutting tale of class, gender, and
psychological trauma would surely bring the venerated but to contemporary
tastes melodramatic chestnut screaming to life.

So you may be surprised to learn South African playwright Yaël Farber sets
her Mies Julie, which closely parallels Strindberg’s work, nearly
two decades after apartheid was dismantled-specifically on April 27, 2012,
the 18th Freedom Day commemorating the nation’s first democratic elections.
Setting the story well after black South Africans gained a degree of
freedom is perhaps the most insightful choice the playwright makes in
constructing her only partially successful play.

On a narrative level, Freedom Day is an astute equivalent to Midsummer Eve
in Strindberg’s original, the annual night of pagan revelry that threatens
to overturn, if only for an evening, the dominant social order on Miss
Julie’s estate. Similarly, Freedom Day inspires the hands on Mies Julie’s
isolated Karoo farm to carouse late into the night, but in a manner that
seems singularly ominous. As Christine, Mies Julie’s black cook and former
nanny, laments numerous times, a massive storm is brewing, one this farm
may not be able to fully withstand (it’s one of several overworked
metaphors Farber deploys ham-handedly across the play’s 70 minutes).

And on a political level, this particular Freedom Day stirs up a volatile
mixture of pride and debasement, hope and exasperation for black South
Africans indentured on the farm. Nearly two decades after apartheid has
ended, they remain crushed under the intractable extralegal remnants of
that very system. As John, the servant locked in a suicidal love battle
with Mies Julie, declares, “Welcome to the new South Africa, where miracles
leave us exactly where we began.”

A moment like this reveals the real power of Farber’s setting the play when
she does. Had the story unfolded when apartheid was in place, she’d have
given her audience an easy out: Mies Julie’s careless, entitled
condescension toward John, and John’s simultaneous contempt and adoration
of Mies Julie, are symptoms of a now-outlawed system, and the play becomes
a historical diorama. But Farber illustrates a far more disturbing reality:
the legacy of colonialism extends its toxic tendrils so deeply into every
social structure that it can’t be excised by legislative decree. When it
comes to restoring humanity to people dehumanized for centuries, 20 years
is hardly enough time for even a first step.

The scope of Farber’s piece is daunting, and perhaps too ambitious for this
relatively brief and occasionally formulaic work. While Mies Julie and John
begin as unique characters laden with troubled, intertwined personal and
social histories, by the time they’re bent on mutually assured erotic
destruction toward the end of the play, they’ve devolved into emblems of
white South Africa and black South Africa, a miscalculation that robs the
play’s tragic finale of pathos. It doesn’t help that John’s mother,
Christine, serves little purpose in the play except to remind everyone that
terrible things are just around the corner or to lament that the kitchen in
which she toils was built atop her ancestor’s graves (a horrifying image
that loses its power with multiple iterations). Despite an exhilarating
performance from Celeste Williams, Christine remains more historical
outlook than person.

In stark contrast to Strindberg, famously fascinated with sublimated
emotions, Farber lays everything on the table from start to finish. Her
characters wear their vulnerabilities, hatreds, and desires on their
sleeves (in an emblematic departure from Strindberg, John and Mies Julie
consummate their love center stage atop the kitchen table, rather than in
John’s offstage bedroom). The frankness of Farber’s script makes for
explosive drama as well as overzealous schmaltz more melodramatic than
Strindberg’s original.

It’s the explosive parts that director Dexter Bullard captures particularly
well, as he has done since bursting onto the scene 28 years ago with his
hypersweaty Bouncers at Evanston’s Next Theatre. This Victory
Gardens production pulls no punches; a trigger-warning list for this show
would span several pages. The ferocious cast, which includes Heather
Chrisler as Mies Julie and Jalen Gilbert as John, meet Bullard’s and
Farber’s every demand. The patches of melodrama are perhaps the unavoidable
price for taking the playwright’s words so earnestly to heart.   v