Stories seem to topple from the imagination and memory of Athol Fugard -- simple stories that, before we know it, swell to become the rich, uneasy historical and personal journey of his country.
So it is again, this time with "The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek," which is having its world premiere at the Signature Theater, where the master South African playwright, 82, is part of an invaluable semi-permanent residency program.
Fugard, who also directs, introduces us to two characters -- an old black man (Leon Addison Brown) and an eager young apprentice (Caleb McLaughlin). The boy pulls a wagon of paint cans through an expanse of dry, red dirt interrupted by small rocks painted with lively geometric patterns. In the center is a huge boulder, which the old man contemplates with weary wariness before attacking the thing with his brushes.
The old man, named Nukain, is Fugard's fictionalized idea of Nukain Mabusa, a poor laborer on a white farm, whose painted rocks, years later, have become an important example of Outsider Art. It is 1981 and Nukain is grappling with what he calls the Big One, the rock on which he will finally tell his own story before he dies.
He looks tall and strong as he finishes the monument to himself. But his body stoops back into subservience as the Afrikaner woman (Bianca Amato) who owns the farm demands he erase the disturbing painting and replace it with one of the cheerful rocks they refer to as "flowers." She also orders him to beat the boy for being outspoken.
The second act jumps to 2003. The rocks are faded. The boy has grown into an educated man in a suit (Sahr Ngaujah), who returns to restore his long-forgotten mentor's work. The owner, terrified by the seismic change in the country, greets him with a revolver in her trembling, weathered hand.
That's pretty much it, except for the beautiful acting, tales of horrible violence and contrasting emotions about the country's new constitution. And from such simplicity, Fugard, once again, stamps indelible human faces on faraway reports of the world's news.
WHERE Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd St.
INFO $25; 212-244-7529; signaturetheatre.org