Johnny sticks his thumb out

BoskakThe road is a seductive idea. It offers freedom, novelty, escape. Problems are direct and physical. A flat wheel, a worn clutchplate, a storm. Constant movement creates an eternal sense of the present, and as the sages intone, being mindful of the present is a foundation for bliss.

It is no coincidence that the open road is an ever present metaphor in rock ‘n roll, a musical form premised on the desire for freedom.

Johnny Boskak is a rock ‘n roll play, and not just because it opens with a Bruce Springsteen track. The very name of the play references Koos Kombuis’s ultimate rock ‘n roll song, Johnny is nie dood nie, and Craig Morris channels roadsters from Jack Kerouac to James Phillips, with every white boy in between who stuck his thumb out on the highway until the ’90s became the ‘oughts. For some strange reason, hitching stopped being a default mode of travel for broke white okes in South Africa in the 21st Century, around the same time people started trying to catch a ride with a R20 bill rather than a thumb.

In what might be a uniquely South African irony, hitching, that ultimate symbol of freedom, was a state-sanctioned mode of travel for conscripts in the SADF. There were even lay-byes specially constructed for the okes in brown burdened with their bal sak, with signs and everything. Yet despite, or because of, the chances of being rapidly picked up by a patriotic boer, troepe swopped their browns for their denims as soon as the army base was out of sight, prefering a longer wait on the side of the road than having that hated uniform hanging off them for a moment longer than necessary.

This is where we find Johnny Boskak. On the side of the road, in his denims, with a bal sak. And what do you do when you’re stranded between Niemandsville and fokolnêrens with nothing with the crows and the roadkill for company except tell a story? Even if it’s to yourself. Or to us.

Of course being South African, Johnny is fucked up. He’s feeling funny. There’s frustration and suppressed rage that expresses itself through self destructive rebellion. We’re all angry, it’s a national character. Unfortunately the reasons for the anger differ if you’re white or black or coloured or Indian. Whites okes, though, have some debilitating guilt shit thrown into their peculiar mix, of course, along with a newly discovered irrelevance. Writer Greig Coetzee (this is sort of a follow-on to White Men with Weapons) is able to sidestep racial roadblocks, partly through toying with irony and self-deprecation, to enunciate white South African experience without – as is unfortunately sometimes the case – negating other lived realities or pushing them aside.

So Ja, Johnny’s a white oke, as you may have gathered. That’s not his fault though, and he’s on the road, seeking freedom from his demons.

But even Bruce Springsteen came to admit that the highway may be open, but it holds no answers, and Jack Kerouac was forced to return to his mother’s Catholic home.

The road is an illusion and there is no escape. Johnny, like all of us, has to face his devil, and the choices we make in that battle determine whether we go to hell or to paradise with our Eve. It sounds simple, but there’s a wild card: bad shit can happen to good people.

Sometimes, life doesn’t rhyme. And only if you go hear Johnny’s story, will you really understand that line.

I managed to check Johnny Boskak is feeling funny at the POPArt in Joey’s before he hit the road to Grahamstown to tjune you at the National Arts Festival. He’s a fireball, and director Roslyn Wood-Morris keeps him steady on that broken white line. So catch him there.

— Steve Kretzmann

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