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The Dirty Boots

All semester long in this Dramaturgical course, I have been immersed in Greek dramas and their modern adaptations/translations of them. Finally, I had an opportunity to see something very similar to what I had been studying through ArtsEmerson, Mies Julie by Yaël Farber.

Yesterdays performance was extraordinarily important in the conversation that Farber seems to wish to foster; that apartheid’s structure has been ingrained into the consciousness, the landscape, that the reality has not changed too much in the past two decades. With the loss of Nelson Mandela, the conqueror of apartheid, Farber’s play will receive more attention than it all ready would have, being a play centered around Freedom Day (a holiday remembering Mandela’s election).

One of the symbols of Strindberg’s original is the pair of omnipresent boots that Jean constantly cleans and buffs. This production takes this template as a springboard to extrapolate their meaning to visually symbolize the nature of apartheid and colonialism. Boots may be a status symbol or a tool for work. In this translation, Julie’s father is not the only one who wears boots; John and Christine must wear boots (or in this case wellies) to do their jobs. However, the inclusion of more boots on a separate shoe rack was striking as every shoe on that rack was a worker’s boots (i.e. like John’s or Christine’s). These boots were covered in dust, pushed out to the margins of the set, received no attention, and grossly outnumbered the Master’s boots.

In this one image, Mies Julie at ArtsEmerson tells the story of apartheid and the attitude of the world about this reality. These dirty boots, even if they are dirty and neglected, are still there, distant but still there. The numbers of the shoes show the vast injustice of scale, the European descendants acting as oppressors, but also being outnumbered by the oppressed. The language of oppression, when analyzed etymologically, houses the nature of racism. “Kaffir,” as a racial slur, refers to black people in South Africa. The term originates with “kafir,” an Arabic word meaning “infidel,” which when expanded means a person with a different belief system than the mainstream. But is the mainstream the colonizing culture, or is it the colonial culture?

As an American audience, we know that this happened, but what does it mean? Certainly slavery is a common thread that we draw on to make this more relatable, but slavery isn’t in living memory anymore. Even the civil rights movement is a parallel, but that memory is becoming more and more distant. Do we have something like this to hold onto when our society does not seem to challenge the status quo as it once did?

With recent events in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, racism and race relations have been thrust into the mainstream conversation, however, when this event concludes or dies down, conversations about race will fade into the background until another Lunenburg happens. To an American audience, Mies Julie shows that these conversations do not ever end. When one race has oppressed another so horrifically, those events will always inform interaction on some level. But, we are required to struggle with this. The struggle promotes discourse, but can help heal.

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