I saw Mies Julie again: a South African Playwright gives DC a window and a mirror

On Sunday I got to see Mies Julie for the second time. How it happened is the interesting story, to me anyway. To relay the telling of it, my roommate Hannah and her friend Claire were in a coffee shop last week doing school work, shooting the shit, and generally befriending other patrons. And who should they meet? A lovely, young South African actress and her two musician friends who are in a play that’s currently running in DC. They got talking to the actress, sharing the fun fact that their friend had just spent a year in Johannesburg, and after a few rounds of no-look-no-lift-portraits, one thing led to another and the actress (Hilda Cronje) offers them a bunch of tickets because they don’t have friends in DC to invite. 

Cut to Sunday night when a group of six friends trek to DC’s Shakespeare Theater to see Mies Julie. I thought about the first performance I saw at Market Theater and missed my friends back in Johannesburg. I thought about the powerful, bold performances that hang together through a beautiful set and lighting, perfectly crafted and juxtaposed music, excellent editorial changes to the original play’s plot and setting (read educational and interesting pieces from Washington Post and The New Yorker), and dialogue / direction that vacillates between richly nuanced with double meaning and over-wrought punches. 

More on the play in a minute. What you need to know about the people with whom we connected is as follows. It was a magical night. We took Hilda, Daniel and Matthew  out for drinks at an Irish Pub. Over several rounds of beer we shot the shit and drew rapid portraits of one another which I conveniently got to keep because they are in my moleskine notebook.  Hilda is very very:  short, fit, charming, intense, wild. The musicians are soft spoken, sharp witted adventures who also happen to be brothers from Ottawa who lived in Montreal for a while where they connected with the Director, Yael Farber. You can read more about the union that took place in Montreal’s Le Depanneur Cafe (further proving that all good things happen in Montreal, Canada) here. Full disclosure: I may have fallen into “smitten” for a night with one of the brothers over a long conversation about playing music in sacred places, public places (Antonio Gaudi’s Park Güell) and throwing sound. 

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Okay, so the play. There’s a spectrum of responses to the play from some DC Theater critics and each holds a compelling praise and criticism. 

“The end result is a thrilling, hyper-charged physical showcase of passionate performances from the two leads (Bongile Mantsai, Hilda Cronje), however undermined by a strained, overwrought script void of character development.
“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.’ … But [Mies Julie] is  about the land [the protagonists] 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.”

I feel too far removed from the first time I saw the play at the Market Theater in Johannesburg in February 2013, to offer a-true-to-the-experience reflection. As for the second time, my experience of seeing the play in DC at The Shakespeare Theater on closing night (November 24, 2013) was tempered by wanting to know what my American friends thought and felt about the play. To that point, I would like to offer a quote from this Washington Post interview with Farber that hits on one of my strongest noticings about the play that came through after seeing it a second time in the US.

“While adapting “Miss Julie,” Farber realized that she didn’t want to foreground the fact that her protagonists are of different races, because interracial relationships are “not so shocking” in South Africa today… Instead, Farber wanted to highlight the question of land ownership, which she believes to be “the really vibrating, volatile issue” in South Africa today. It’s an issue rendered painful by the specifics of history: Colonialism and, subsequently, apartheid’s system of white privilege had a deep effect on property-ownership patterns in South Africa.”

Farber adds that she “was struck by the way American audiences, for their part, seemed to focus on the interracial-­relationship.”  This was a pressing question from my friends as well. My first, and second, experience with the play centered most strongly on the issues of land ownership, both on Freedom Day in 1994, which is when Farber has set the play, and today. The issues of possession, claiming, grabbing, revenge vis-a-vis sex and land still sit in a place of strong disquiet for me that requires ongoing interrogation and reflection.

The event recounted took place on November 24, 2013.