Boesman and Lena are "coloured" South Africans wandering through the mudflats by the Swartkops River. In the first act, they stagger onstage carrying everything they own: pots, pans, clothes, wine, a mattress, and other small items. Earlier the same day, they were driven out of their old home when a bulldozer came to destroy the itinerant camp where they had built their "pondok" or hut. It is clear from the brutality of the destruction that the residents of the homeless camp were targeted because of the color of their skin. Boesman and Lena is set during apartheid in South Africa, and racism drove the white ruling class to push homeless "coloureds" like Boesman and Lena as far away from white neighborhoods as possible. Author Athol Fugard makes it clear that this isn't the first time Boesman and Lena have been driven out of their homes. Both characters are in their fifties, and they appear to have been living this itinerant life together for decades.
One would think that these hardships would bring Boesman and Lena closer together, but in fact the pair seem curiously ill-suited. Lena is understandably bitter and depressed about their situation, and she describes the mudflats in a negative light, saying, "This piece of world is rotten. Put down your foot and you're in it up to your knee." Given that stage productions of the play can't always add real mud or dirt to the stage, this line also serves as description for the audience, enhancing the already bleak, depressing atmosphere. Boesman, meanwhile, is alternately taciturn and abusive, oscillating between giving Lena the silent treatment and savagely lashing out at her. Boesman claims to just want peace while building their new pondok out of corrugated iron and scrap metal. While he works, she recalls the names of all the shantytowns that they have been driven out of over the years: Redhouse, Veeplaas, Korsten, Bethelsdorp, Mission Vale, Kleinskool. It is important to Lena to remember. Her history is a personalized account of life under apartheid, and experiences like hers were common at the time. In effect, her attempt to reconstruct her past is an attempt to make sense of the history of apartheid. Its injustices are both the subject of and the inspiration for the play.
Partway through the first act, Lena notices a man sitting across the mudflats. She invites him over in spite of Boesman's objections and eagerly attempts to start a conversation, desperate for a real conversation with someone other than Boesman. Unfortunately, the man only speaks Xhosa, a tribal language, and can't understand English or Afrikaans. Nevertheless, Lena invites the man to sit at the fire. She calls him Outa, a name that means Old Father. Irritated, Boesman stalks off to collect some firewood. In his absence, Lena feels free to tell Outa all about the abuse, the moves, and the dog she had to leave behind that morning. Outa mumbles and nods but can't comfort her. When Boesman comes back, he demands that Lena join him in the hut. He presents two options: sit in the cold with Outa or join him in the pondok and drink some nice wine. Lena chooses Outa, partly out of spite and partly because she wants to make a human connection with another human being. She covers Outa and herself with a blanket and settles in beside the fire. This ends Act One.
Act Two picks up the story an hour later, with Boesman drunk on his first bottle of wine. Furious, he forces Lena to recount the events of that morning, when the bulldozers destroyed their...
(This entire section contains 779 words.)
hut. He starts mocking her for the fear she showed. He says, ‘‘Freedom! That's what the white man gave us. When we picked up our things and started to walk I wanted to sing. It was Freedom!’’ And yet his first act was to find a place to build a new pondok. Boesman retreats into the hut with yet another bottle of wine. Lena again tries to cheer herself up by speaking to Outa. Disgusted, Boesman admits that he beat her for no reason that morning: in fact, he was the one who broke the bottles he accused her of dropping. This leads to a big fight, in the middle of which Outa dies. Boesman snaps, unable to process the old man's death at the end of such a horrible day. He beats the corpse, just like he has beaten Lena. She shouts at him to stop. Still enraged, Boesman packs their things, preparing for yet another move. ‘‘Where we going?’’ Lena asks him. ‘‘Better be far.’’ The play ends with the couple walking off stage, searching for freedom.