Mies Julie depicts a postapartheid South Africa still mired in its legacy of colonialism and racism | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

Mies Julie depicts a postapartheid South Africa still mired in its legacy of colonialism and racism 

But playwright Yaël Farber’s ambition far outstrips what appears onstage.

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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

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