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A Delicate Passion

Danny Glover and Angela Bassett star in the independent movie based on Athol Fugard's play, 'Boesman & Lena,' about the horrors of apartheid.

November 16, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES THEATER WRITER

Danny Glover and Angela Bassett are two of the most acclaimed and successfulAfrican American actors working today. And they usually star in big movies; Glover has had great success in the "Lethal Weapon" series with Mel Gibson as well as in such films as "The Color Purple" and "Grand Canyon." Bassett received an Oscar nomination as Tina Turner in 1993's "What's Love Got to Do With It" and headlined such hits as "Waiting to Exhale" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back."

But the two actors leaped at the chance to star in an intimate independent feature, "Boesman & Lena," which opens in select theaters on Friday.

"Boesman & Lena" is based on South African writer Athol Fugard's 1969 play about a long-married couple whose love and fight for survival are constantly being tested by the evils of apartheid. As the film opens, the "colored" (of mixed race) couple are driven from their shanty yet again by the whites, and the two end up making a home on an isolated mud bank in Cape Town, South Africa.

Lena (Bassett) keeps remembering their happier times. Boesman (Glover) is filled with rage and anger. Their relationship changes, though, with the arrival of a stranger (Willie Jonah) at their makeshift home.

The film was adapted and directed by blacklisted director John Berry ("Claudine," "He Ran All the Way"), who directed several Fugard plays in New York and London, including the 1970 Broadway production of "Boesman & Lena." Berry died at age 82 last November, just a few days before he would have completed post-production work on the movie.

Glover, 53, and Bassett, 42, recently talked passionately and affectionately about "Boesman & Lena" and Berry in a recent interview.

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Question: What was it like working with director Berry on "Boesman & Lena"?

Danny Glover: I think we were both moved by John's passion for the work and his vision, his enormous vision of this piece. You take a piece like "Boesman & Lena" and you have to be a stalwart in passion and vision, because it probably--out of all the work that Fugard has done--is the most fascinating, interesting and most difficult to translate into a film. "Boesman & Lena" is a very, very delicate play.

Angela Bassett: The passion he [Berry] brought to the work and his commitment to it--he had such a long history with his piece. So to be nearing the end of your life and to still have another story that you wanted to tell, and it being this story about the relationship between this man and this woman to each other and to the world.

Q: How did you both get involved with the project which was filmed last year?

Glover: It was just one of those fortuitous moments. Because I am on the advisory committee for the San Francisco Film Festival, I was invited to a screening and tribute to John. He mentioned "Boesman & Lena." If I had not been an actor who had done Fugard, I would have said "Boesman and who?" But I was an actor who was familiar with [Fugard's] work. Did John know that? I doubt it. We began a dialogue and mutual passion [for the project]. Then when he mentioned Angela. . . .

Bassett: I think someone told me that in the last two years or so, someone gave him a copy of "What's Love Got to Do With It" and he said, "That's my Lena."

Q: It must have been a great experience to play such rich, multilayered character parts.

Bassett: It was very freeing. These people, they don't speak the way we speak; they are really speaking to express their ideas and themselves. I think the African people and the people of color are so expressive and so passionate. The things that they talk about; they use their complete and whole body. There is nothing reserved about them. The more you went out on the limb the better it was.

Q: Danny, were both you and Angela on the same wavelength regarding the characters and the piece?

Glover: Absolutely. I think from the first reading I knew this was going to be a wonderful journey.

Bassett: I remember trying on costumes [for the role] and just not feeling right. I said, "You know what? I need more [clothing]." That is what their life is about. On their travels and travails, they just pick up stuff, collecting bits of other people's lives, their refuge, and things that other people have thrown away these two have been able to make use of.

Q: How do you think Fugard, who is white, is able to write so insightfully about the plight of blacks in apartheid South Africa?

Bassett: He's not afraid to tell the truth about what goes on, no matter how painful.

Glover: Fugard is a Boer. His wife is English. In some ways writing probably was a way of liberating himself. He doesn't politicize. What you see in most stories about depravation are a lot of polemics. What he deals with primarily is how people relate. He always shows you the possibility of what they would have been or could have been had not they been so dysfunctional in this dysfunctional system. He brings a level of universality to that experience because he's looking at the relationship itself.

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