Waafrika at Empire Stage: Be Prepared to Squirm
Waafrika is the kind of work that could get a playwright killed in a less enlightened country. It doesn't just upset an apple cart of tradition practiced in 28 nations — it uproots the cart and smashes the apples, revealing the rotten cores and razor blades tucked inside.
Written by Nick Mwaluko, a transgender, Kenyan-born journalist, playwright, and LGBT activist, Waafrika is an impassioned howl of rage directed at the barbaric practice of female genital circumcision and Kenya's regressive, militant stance toward gays and lesbians. It was penned in 2005 but is enjoying something of a world premiere at Fort Lauderdale's Thinking Cap Theatre, that rare company provocative enough to stage it.
It's set in a rural Kenyan village in 1992. Makeba Pace plays Awino, a young woman, dressed in a Western man's clothes, who for the past seven months has been shacking up in a kraal with Bobby (Kim Ehly), a Peace Corps volunteer from an affluent family and the only Caucasian person in the vicinity. This doesn't sit well with Awino's father (John Archie), who also happens to be chief of the village.
In Kenya, same-sex relationships are worse than sinful: According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, 89 percent of LGBTI people who come out to their families are disowned, and few are able to survive in the workplace once their orientation becomes public. For Awino, the 90 minutes of Waafrika present her with a perpetual struggle: follow her heart at the expense of centuries of customs or repress who she really is and remain a devout member of her tribe. The chief faces a similar quandary as he sees his daughter grow ever more distanced and Westernized in her dress and attitudes: Should he cling to tradition or accept progress?
There are no easy solutions to these existential dilemmas, and Mwaluko doesn't pretend to offer them. As a crusading reporter who has written about gay issues for Reuters News Agency, the Huffington Post, and other media outlets, Mwaluko is an authority on the subject, and Waafrika has the effect of documentary reportage shaped into fiction. As a result, it makes for unsettling, uncompromising gestalt theater. There is torture both described and exhibited in graphic detail, along with explanations of some of Kenya's most disturbing practices, like plural marriage to child brides.
Waafrika is not devoid of humor, but then again, neither is Schindler's List. The prevailing emotion here is discomfort: Be prepared to squirm in your seat more than once as your empathetic triggers are activated.
From a sociopolitical standpoint, Waafrika is one of the most vital, visceral experiences you'll encounter on a stage all year. It has the immediate capacity to raise awareness and change lives. But from a dramaturgical perspective, it could use some work. The dialogue is hampered by the occasional arch passage, particularly from Bobby; perhaps Mwaluko had trouble capturing the cadences and personality of the show's only white character. She's subjected, at times, to speaking in stilted poetry verses, making her sound even more like an alien in a strange land. It just doesn't work, though Ehly's performance never falters, because she's an accomplished actress who makes us feel everything she's feeling onstage — the many shades of anger, frustration, love, and lust that manifest, in some cases, within a single scene.
Pace, meanwhile, delivers a moving and multifaceted performance as a young girl swinging like a pendulum between impossible choices. But the actress, who is straight, could be a lot more comfortable in her intimate moments with Ehly, who does most of the heavy lifting in the love scenes. Perhaps as the show's run continues, she'll grow more accustomed to this challenge.
The rest of the cast is flawless. As always, it's a pleasure to watch Archie inhabit his character like a second skin. From his probing eyes down to his walking stick, which he jabs into the floor with every intense interrogation of his daughter, he exudes unimpeachable eminence. A couple of scenes later, he's just as convincing as a pathetic old man, bowing to one of his wives (Carey Brianna Hart) for permission to wed a "beautiful" 7-year-old girl. Hart, Renee Elizabeth Turner, and Stephon Duncan play the chief's three brides, all of them memorable in smallish parts and all bedecked in lovely traditional African clothing and loud jewelry tailored by director Nicole Stodard and Chastity Collins.
One of Thinking Cap's signature qualities as a company is its scrappily affecting atmosphere — the vivid ambiance Stodard is able to create with simple means. There's not much of this in the first act of Waafrika, and Collins' desert-like set design, with its un-rock-like rock formations, is merely perfunctory. But the harrowing second act is another story. A military raid on Awino and Bobby's kraal is presented as a darkened invasion of three manic flashlight beams, complemented by a soundscape of rain, barking dogs, and the piercing noise of shattered glass, broken furniture, and other indications of a pillage. Bobby then shares the story of the ransacking while leaning against the back of the stage under Stefanie Howard's dim lighting, suggestive of a CIA black site or a police interrogation room. It's awfully uncomfortable and uncomfortably awful, but it's only the preamble for what's to come.
There are moments in Waafrika that bristle with universality. Almost anyone, from any culture, can relate to the familial conflicts created by parents who cannot accept the lives their children have chosen. But Western audiences should be grateful for the actions they don't understand in Waafrika. Genital mutilation, child marriage, and government-sanctioned persecution of homosexuals don't happen here, and most of us live our lives blind to the bodily terrorism that other cultures consider a way of life. Waafrika is not a perfect play, but in this sobering production, if it encourages just one person to take action on these issues, it's worth not only seeing but also cherishing.
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