Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photos by Liz Lauren.
In a week when Roseanne Barr has offered us the latest clear evidence (as if any were needed with our current government) that racism is alive and well in the United States, Victory Gardens Theatre turn its attention to another country where institutionalized racism caused huge rifts that have been difficult to overcome. Here in America, far from the source, it’s easy to think that South Africa ended its racist period with the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela, but that too-facile belief is the same as believing our country’s racism ended with the end of Jim Crow and the election of Barack Obama. It would have been nice, but deeply held beliefs do not die so easily. Mies Julie, set in South Africa on the 18th Freedom Day (celebrating apartheid’s end), tackles racism head-on as it tackles the equally difficult issues of classism and sexism. It makes for seventy minutes of compelling theatre.
Mies Julie, written by Yaël Farber and directed by Dexter Bullard, is based on August Strindberg’s classic naturalistic drama Miss Julie about one night when, fueled by passion and drink, the flirtatious relationship between the daughter of a wealthy man and one of her servants turns real and physical. The original play is an intense study of dynamics: these characters vie for control in this new relationship, the titular heiress Julie using her social status as a weapon while the servant John exerts himself as a man, using gender to his advantage. Farber’s new play, which adds racial politics and the particular remnants of apartheid into the mix, offers almost nonstop intensity and powerful emotions. It is a play that puts its audience through an emotional wringer and doesn’t let up until it ends. Seventy minutes may well be about as much as one can take.
But oh what a glorious seventy minutes of theatre this is! It begins with Christine (the wonderful Celeste Williams), a servant in the kitchen of the farm run by Mies Julie’s father, cleaning the floor of a room that, we come to discover, was constructed directly over the grave of her grandmother Ukhokho (played by a ghostly T. Ayo Alston as a presence to be reckoned with). Christine cannot get past the fact that apartheid laws allowed the white people to seize and legally control land that had once belonged to natives and that this particular family could be so callous; she serves them primarily to be near her ancestors. (In the peculiar aftermath of apartheid, it is also made clear that ancestors of the white family are buried on the land as well; nothing about this is easy.)
Julie (the powerful and wonderful Heather Chrisler) flits in and out of the room, caring little for propriety and exhibiting all of the signs of one drunk on dancing and liquor, while Christine’s son John (Jalen Gilbert, recently seen in Dontrelle Who Kissed the Sea) sits polishing her father’s boots. Her flirting with him is open and clear to them both: she can do this because she is the boss’s daughter and because she is white, both of which make her strong against any real intimate encounters, and she uses them both to her advantage. Eventually, she gets John to acknowledge that he has loved her all of their lives, since he could watch her playing when she was a young girl. He tells her of a time when he even tried to kill himself because he could not be with her. And as she listens (and drinks), Julie finds herself wanting more than mere talk.
The sexual tension between Julie and John is palpable, and Chrisler and Gilbert throw themselves at it with reckless abandon as their passion overwhelms them. (Be warned: there is a simulated sex act onstage in this show; that kitchen table isn’t just there for appearances.) Having given in to it, though, Julie suddenly realizes she’s crossed a line that cannot be uncrossed, and John seizes the chance to take control of the situation. As a man, he can certainly exert his power; as a black man, he can take advantage of inheritance laws, using any offspring of their liaison to wrest control of the farm back from the white people who have owned it for generations. In his blunter moments, this is exactly what he desires, and his rhetoric toward Julie is ugly and hurtful. In more tender moments, he and Julie make a plan to run away and found a hotel together. The rollercoaster of vehement emotions plays on, each of them trying to assert control, in a fierce tug of war that can only have one ending.
Chrisler, whose recent performances (Mary’s Wedding, Machinal) have been nothing short of revelatory, tackles the complexities of Julie beautifully. As is the case in Strindberg, her desires here are simple and straightforward, but Farber’s more complicated social scenario allows a far more complete rendering of character than in the classic play, where the depths are hindered by the sexual politics and chauvinism of the era. Farber has stated that her goal was to recreate the feeling of watching this play that got it banned when it was written for its scandalous nature. Director Bullard pulls no punches when going for the same reaction (minus the ban, of course) from a more modern, jaded audience. He misses not a single opportunity to shock and disturb us, not gratuitously but all in the service of the catharsis the play seeks from its audience. My entire body was tensed for much of the play’s second half; it’s that powerful. Gilbert matches Chrisler step for step and emotion for emotion, giving such life to John that both his verbal and physical sparring with Julie are capable of stunning us. What he wants, too, is simple and clear; as a black man in South Africa, his path toward achieving it is less so. Gilbert’s performance draws us in even when John is being intentionally hurtful; there is no time in a seventy-minute show to ease up.
Strindberg’s Miss Julie, not much longer than this play, takes its characters on a crazy, dangerous ride and has several major emotional swings in a very short time. Mies Julie does this as well: the need to resolve things before Julie’s father returns from a trip in both plays forces a kind of urgency on the whole proceeding, making the endings fairly inevitable, specifics notwithstanding. Here, on a simple (designer Kurtis Boetcher’s nod to the naturalism of the play) kitchen set on a desert plateau, things play out that echo far beyond the moments, no matter how devastating those moments may be.
Other design elements are perfect as well. The lighting by Diane D. Fairchild is remarkable; she takes excellent advantage of Boetcher’s giant ceiling fan to create some dramatic effects. Raquel Adorno’s costumes are simple but evocative; the long, flowy dress she puts Chrisler into somehow is simultaneously demure and sexy. Stephen Ptacek’s sound design, especially as it amplifies and echoes Ukhokho, is lovely. Eleanor Kahn’s props are a naturalist’s delight (and kudos to her for using a real bird onstage). And this is one play where I really need to give a shoutout to a couple of the most ignored of designers, the intimacy choreographer and dialect coach. Kristina Fluty must have worked doggedly to get this play to look as real as it does. And Phil Timberlake’s work with the actors recreates South African Afrikaans and IsiXhosa accents perfectly.
Mies Julie may be short, but it is a heightened, concentrated kind of shortness. You’ll know you’ve experienced something extraordinary when it is finished and you remember how to breathe again. One of the most intense shows of the year, it’s also one of the best.
Mies Julie is a Victory Gardens production now playing at Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N Lincoln Ave, Chicago, until June 24. Performance times vary; check the website at Victory Gardens Theatre. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.