A shifty-eyed saxophonist plays monotonously into a microphone as the pervasive dust of the Karoo (an arid region of South Africa) wafts over the audience during the first moments of Yael Farber’s Mies Julie, now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse. What follows is 90 minutes of sweaty, spitty, sexy Drama with a capital “D.”
The action of the play, adapted by Farber from August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, takes place in the kitchen of Veenen Plaas, a farmstead owned by a white South African descendant of Boer settlers and worked on by the black descendants of the people who lived on that land before them.
Julie (Hilda Cronje), the daughter of the farm’s owner, has recently been dumped by her fiance and is in a particularly destructive mood. She wants to break tradition and dance with the black squatters who have taken up residency on her father’s land on the eve of Freedom Day (commemorating the election of Nelson Mandela 18 years prior).
But her main goal is to get the attention of John (Bongile Mantsai), her father’s favorite black servant, because she wants to screw him. What follows is a tempestuous dance between Julie and John rife with sexual frustration and racial animosity. At one point, as Julie commands John to kiss her foot (lifting her leg and exposing her vagina to him in the process), she asks him, “Do you feel free?”
John is also deeply frustrated with his complacent mother Christine (Thoko Ntshinga), who is haunted by the ghost of her harmonica-playing great grandmother (Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa), the bones of whom she believes are buried underneath the floor of the kitchen.
Cronje is masterful in her portrayal of the restless and child-like Julie, switching instantly between violent rage and lustful passion in her interactions with John, who is portrayed as both intelligent and hyper-virile by the excellent Mantsai.
Farber, who also directs the work, has incisively captured the paranoia of the endangered, but still powerful, white minority in her country as it clashes with the aspirations of an increasingly-dissatisfied black majority. The result is a thought-provoking examination of entrenched inequality in the face of inevitable change. It is clear that the status quo (at Veenen Plaas and in the rest of South Africa) cannot hold, but what will takes its place is yet to be seen — and will almost certainly come with a high cost.