Magic Time! Reflections on ‘Mies Julie’ by John Stoltenberg

On the evidence of Mies Julie, Yael Farber, who wrote and directed it, must be counted among the most important theater artists on the world stage today. Beyond brilliant: important. Rarely have I walked out onto the street after a show as wrapped in awe as I did from this one. Now in a too-brief run at the Lansburgh Theatre—hot off a world tour on which it has gathered critical adoration the way sex pheromones attract paramours—Mies Julie raises the heat index for combustible theatrical consummation.

John (Bongile Mantsai) and Julie (Hilda Cronje) in 'Mies Julie.' Photo by Murdo MacLeod.
John (Bongile Mantsai) and Julie (Hilda Cronje) in ‘Mies Julie.’ Photo by Murdo MacLeod.

On one level, the throbbing surface, this production merges shocking storytelling, indelible imagery, mesmerizing mise-en-scène, and transfixing performances by two gorgeous leads—Bongile Mantsai (John) and Hilda Cronje (Mies Julie)— whose pas de deux of desire becomes a horrifying danse macabre. Their acting and  dancing are of a piece. By astonishing turns they move gracefully then powerfully, and as they do, they elicit an extraordinary visceral response.

On another level, the play’s solid core, Mies Julie exposes—through the eyes of an author whose political field of vision is nearly peerless in contemporary theater—the nexus of sex and possession, the landscape of passion and property, the place where body and soil become one. I have heard and read about this play for some time. I knew I needed to see it. I had no idea it would be so affecting.

Yael Farber loosely adapted her Mies Julie, which is set in 2012 in post-apartheid South Africa, from August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, his play about sex and class that in 1909 scandalized Stockholm. Race was not in the mix in those days; the homogenized gene pool skimmed off everyone’s melanin. Thus in the drama driving the action between Julie, the flirty and flighty daughter of the count who owns the estate, and Jean, the master’s lusty manservant, their male-female sexual power struggle plays out white on white.

Mies Julie tells a more profound story than that Swede could have conceived. Farber transplants it to a kitchen in an Afrikaans-owned estate on a semidesert under which lie buried ancestors of the Xhosa servants for whom this was once simply home, not the big house. For U.S. audiences, the class inequity in the pulsing male-female power play between the Afrikaans daughter Julie and the Xhosa servant John is made all the more palpable by the contrast in their pigmentation. Thus when Julie and John couple atop the kitchen table, we do not watch without recollections of the slave trade and its persistent residue race hate that until not long ago made miscegnation a crime against white supremacy.

Shortly after their graphic tryst, which comes midway through the play, Julie, sensing John’s postcoital emotional abandonment, asks him when he stopped loving her. He answers with brutal honesty: “When you gave yourself to me.” Later on Julie, now vengeful, threatens she will scream rape if he walks out on her. John’s riposte is scorching: “Of course—this is where desire ends. The white daughter crying rape on the black man. So that her father can accept her fucking him.” I doubt I was the only U.S. audience member who at that moment flashed back to To Kill a Mockingbird and Mayella Ewell’s accusation against Tom Robinson.

But Mies Julie isn’t actually about the color of the skin the protagonists live in. It’s about the land they live on. This is land that, a few generations back, squatters took from indigenous peoples such that now the occupiers’ graves have been dug into the same soil where the bones the ancestors of the occupied lie long buried.  Ownership of the land, as Farber has explained in an interview, is the really volatile issue in South Africa today. The analog of Mies Julie to U.S. experience is not opportunity discrepancies between people whose intrepid ancestors immigrated here from Europe and people whose incarcerated ancestors were coerced here from Africa (though many a fine playwright has lanced that unhealed wound). Africans in America never owned land here to be stolen; they were the stolen; they were the owned—bought and sold by slavers whose forebears stole the land. Therefore in American terms what the back story of Mies Julie most echoes is the European genocidal land grab by squatters and occupiers that annihilated indigenous cultures. Except when that all was going on, no Yael Farber put the story on stage and personalized its politics.

“You mine now,” says John to Julie, upon learning, as she washes blood from her inner thighs, that he was her first.

A moment later, Julie says to John, “You mine now. Not his [meaning her father’s].”

This is but one of several points in the play where Farber’s poetic and succinct script evokes the telling semantic fact that “to fuck” can also mean “to possess.” “Be mine” is no mere Valentine. It can come, literally come, as an imperative in intercourse. For what Farber has done in Mies Julie is to overlay all that is fraught about occupation and ownership of land in South Africa with all that is freighted with occupation and ownership in how men and women have sex. And once Farber incorporates into her story line the agricultural metaphor in a man’s planting of his seed and harvesting his child from the body of the woman he has occupied—and Julie’s shocking decision to resist, not comply—the effect is as staggering as a gut punch.

Thoko Ntshinga and Hilda Cronje. Photo by Rodger Bosch.
Thoko Ntshinga and Hilda Cronje. Photo by Rodger Bosch.

Besides Farber’s play itself, there is much to praise about Mies Julie as a production. Two strong supporting performers bring both gravitas and context: Thoko Ntshinga as John’s mother Christine and Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa as an ancestral apparition lend all that is charged with eroticism an undercurrent of loss and lamentation. The costumes  by Birrie le Roux speak unforgettable character subtexts. The set and lighting design by Patrick Curtis emanates arid heat that parches both soil and soul. The music composed and performed by Daniel and Matthew Pencer creates a soundscape that ranges from a dirge to the drone of the nearby power station (or is it flies buzzing over death?)

Even as I left the theater in awe of Farber’s play and this production, I also left feeling gratitude to Michael Kahn and the Shakespeare Theatre Company for bringing it to D.C. Farber is an artist whose work must be seen more in this town.  Her latest theater project is called Nirbhaya, about violence against women in India. I cannot wait.

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Mies Julie plays through November 24, 2013 at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call  202.547.1122, or purchase them online.

Sydney-Chanele Dawkins’ review of Mies Julie on DCMetroTheaterArts.

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John Stoltenberg
John Stoltenberg is executive editor of DC Theater Arts. He writes both reviews and his Magic Time! column, which he named after that magical moment between life and art just before a show begins. In it, he explores how art makes sense of life—and vice versa—as he reflects on meanings that matter in the theater he sees. Decades ago, in college, John began writing, producing, directing, and acting in plays. He continued through grad school—earning an M.F.A. in theater arts from Columbia University School of the Arts—then lucked into a job as writer-in-residence and administrative director with the influential experimental theater company The Open Theatre, whose legendary artistic director was Joseph Chaikin. Meanwhile, his own plays were produced off-off-Broadway, and he won a New York State Arts Council grant to write plays. Then John’s life changed course: He turned to writing nonfiction essays, articles, and books and had a distinguished career as a magazine editor. But he kept going to the theater, the art form that for him has always been the most transcendent and transporting and best illuminates the acts and ethics that connect us. He tweets at @JohnStoltenberg. Member, American Theatre Critics Association.


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