Undine undone or finding fabulous in Fabulation

Fabulation

Margo Hall stars in Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation or The Re-Education of Undine, the season-ending production at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre. Below: Hall with Rudy Guerrero. Photos by Moanalani Jeffrey

Though unplanned, we have something of a Lynn Nottage festival happening in the Bay Area right now.

Berkeley Rep is showing Nottage’s most serious side with her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Ruined, a tale of hope amid brutality, and the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre showcases a more lighthearted (though not exactly comic) side of Nottage with Fabulation, the story of a modern woman’s relationship to her roots.

The really good news here is the story of the Lorraine Hansberry itself. After losing both of its founders last year – the subsequent deaths of Stanley Williams and Quentin Easter is still difficult to fathom – the Hansberry could have foundered and disappeared. That would have meant a huge loss to Bay Area theater. How would you compensate for the loss of one of the nation’s most prominent African-American theater companies as it’s just about to celebrate its 30th anniversary? You couldn’t. And thankfully, we don’t have to.

Steven Anthony Jones, formerly a company member at American Conservatory Theater, has taken the reigns as artistic director, with Shirley Howard-Johnson as his general manager. I have every reason to believe this team will be exactly what the Hansberry needs to reinvent itself and honor its legacy. Fabulation is a terrific production, top to bottom, and it shows a team of dedicated theater professionals working at the top of their game.

And being a top-flight professional is, in many ways, what Fabulation or the Re-education of Undine is all about.

The redoubtable Margo Hall – an asset to any production – stars as Undine, a self-made star of New York’s PR world. She traffics in celebrities and the high life. She has a gorgeous Latin husband, her own successful business and the kind of Manhattan whirlwind life that kids in the nearby projects can only dream about.

We meet Undine on the day of her undoing. The fact that she can’t line up an A-list star (or even someone ghetto enough to cause a splash but not so ghetto as to cause a problem) becomes the least of her problems when she gets a visit from her accountant. It turns out her too-wonderful life has suddenly become too good to be true. That handsome husband has left her and taken all her money. I think “absconded” is the word the accountant uses.

This sends Undine on a downward spiral that will lead her back to the family she hasn’t seen in 14 years. In an act of fabulation (the act of creating fables or stories), she killed her family – at least she mentioned in the press that they were killed in a fire. Since then, the family – not to mention her real name, Sherona – has ceased to exist, at least in the “reality” of her Manhattan world.

It’s like Undine is being punished for success at the cost of the truth. None of her hoity-toity New York friends knows about her past in the projects or the mother and father and brother – all security guards of various types – still in that outer borough. But now that project apartment is the only place Undine has left to turn.

Fabulation 2

Once that spiral begins, of course, it just goes down and down. Cops, jail, narcotics anonymous – it all becomes part of Undine’s new world. Oh, and she also finds out she’s pregnant with the absconder’s baby.

Director Ellen Sebastian Chang mines a great deal of humor from Nottage’s script (which powers along mightily until the final quarter, when it runs out of imagination), and she has a superb cast at her disposal. Hall is just about perfect as Undine – brittle but deeply felt. When she addresses the audience, you adore her immediately, and in spite of her sharp edges, you really begin to feel for her.

The supporting players all play multiple parts – sometimes unrecognizably. Daveed Diggs makes a huge impression as Flow, Undine’s poet of a little brother. He’s got an Act 2 show stopper in the form of his own fabulation on the Br’er Rabbit stories. Rudy Guerrero pulls double duty as the scoundrel of a soon-to-be ex-husband and as a wannabe fireman Undine meets as part of her drug rehab program. Michael J. Asberry makes for a sympathetic father, and Britney Frazier is wonderful as Undine’s assistant (among others).

Halili Knox is a knockout as Undine’s mom, and she starts Act 2 with a gorgeous take Elton John’s “Border Song,” and Carla Punch just about steals the show as Undine’s grandmother, a woman with some surprises up her sleeve (literally). Rounding out the cast is David Westley Skillman, who never met a number cruncher he couldn’t make more interesting.

Fabulation is all about, as Oprah might put it, being your most authentic self, and it offers a lot of laughs as well as a few cringes along the way. It’s so gratifying to see the Lorraine Hansberry producing shows at this level. You might even say it’s fabulous.

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation continues through March 27 at the Southside Theater, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$40. Call 415-345-7575 or visit www.lhtsf.org for information.

The 2011-2012 Lorrain Hansberry season has been announced!

Two one-act plays: Almost Nothing by Marcos Barbosa and Days of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward; Oct. 11-Nov. 20

Rejoice! A musical retelling of the Christmas story; Dec. 11-31

Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall, a powerful British drama; Feb. 5, 2012-March 18, 2012

Blues for an Alabama Sky by Pearl Cleage offers music, culture and history of the Harlem Renaissance; April 1, 2012-May 12, 2012

Ruined but resilient, horrifying but beautiful

Ruined1
Oberon K.A. Adjepong (left) and Tonye Patano star in Ruined, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Below: Carla Duren is restrained by Kola Ogundiran (left) and Okierete Onaodowan. Photos courtesy of www.kevinberne.com

The evil that men do – and have done and continue to do – certainly does live after them. Shakespeare was so right about that. It lives and festers and poisons and leads to more evil.

This is incredibly apparent in Ruined, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play now on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre.

Acts of unspeakable, incomprehensible violence occur, but it’s the echoes of those acts that ring most loudly in this compelling, ultimately shattering theatrical experience. There’s a war depicted on stage, but it’s not the chaotic, constantly shifting free-for-all of militias and government forces in East Africa. Rather, it’s the war waged on the bodies of thousands of that region’s women.

A part of a campaign of terror (and due in no small part to the centuries-old tradition of men in packs behaving like savages) soldiers of all stripes brutally rape and torture the women in their perceived purview.

Taking inspiration from Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, another tale of a resourceful woman surviving in wartime, Nottage gives us the morally ambiguous Mama Nadi (Tonye Patano), proprietor of a jungle whorehouse, where the beer and the orange Fanta sodas are cold and the women are…well, ruined.

To be ruined in this culture is to have been with a man other than your husband – even if that man abducted and raped you. These women, victims as much of their culture as the violence of men, become refugees, and Mama Nadi offers them something of a safe haven.

They get food and a place to sleep. In exchange, they pleasure miners and militiamen, rebel leaders and fast-talking traders. It’s a living – one level of hell traded for another.

Act 1 of director Liesl Tommy’s powerful production is slow to start. The plot doesn’t really kick in until the more emotionally gripping second act, but we get a strong sense of place from Clint Ramos’ set, with the encroaching jungle creeping into the rustic interior of Mama Nadi’s establishment.

Ruined2

With nine men in the cast overpowering the four women, we immediately feel the precarious nature of the world these women inhabit. On an average night at Mama Nadi’s they are handled like useful garbage, roughly pawed and groped in the better moments and taken offstage for the worst moments. We may not see what happens, but we feel it.

That’s the power of Ruined. Nottage takes her time telling the story – primarily of Mama Nadi and two newly arrived girls, Salima (Pascale Armand) and Sophie (Carla Duren). Each of these women has an unfolding story of violence and resilience, and each of these formidable actors brings the depth and compassion these stories deserve. And boy do we feel the pushing and pulling of their lives

There are scenes and stories in this 2 ½-hour play (a co-production of Berkeley Rep, Huntington Theatre Company and La Jolla Playhouse) that are hard to watch. But then you think about how Nottage traveled to Uganda to interview Congolese refugees and how sharing their stories, as wrenching as it may be to watch them, is nothing, nothing compared to living them.

Such horrors are nothing new in the shameful history of mankind, but these atrocities are happening on our watch. Experiences like Ruined aren’t about instilling guilt in Western audiences as much as they are about raising awareness and inciting compassion.

The wonder of Ruined emerges in moments of beauty – whether in a song performed by Sophie (backed by musicians Adesoji Odukogbe and Alvin Terry), an athletic dance performed by the male patrons of Mama Nadi’s (choreographed by Randy Duncan) or a flash of brave compassion from a surprising source.

In the face of mankind at its worst, there can be sparks of beauty and enlightenment, of fleeting joy amid horror. Those sparks – much like extraordinary pieces of theater – are what we aim for.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Ruined continues through April 10 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $34-$73. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.

Delighted by `Ruined,’ Nottage nabs Pulitzer

Lynn Nottage
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Photo by the LA Times

Lynn Nottage’s play Ruined, inspired by Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for drama.

The play, about a Congolese brothel run by a woman named Mama Nadi, is about a country torn apart by civil war and about a woman who is either protecting women or profiting from them. The play began at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre last year and is now off Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York.

The 44-year-old Nottage told the Associated Press: “I wanted to tell the story of these women and the war in the Congo and I couldn’t find anything about them in the newspapers or in the library, so I felt I had to get on a plane and go to Africa and find the story myself. I felt there was a complete absence in the media of their narrative. It’s very different now, but when I went in 2004 that was definitely the case.”

Nottage’s best known work, Intimate Apparel, had a successful run in the Bay Area with a 2005 production from Mountain View’s TheatreWorks. That same year, San Francisco’s Lorraine Hansberry Theatre produced Nottage’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy.

Less successful was a 2002 production of Nottage’s Las Meninas at San Jose Repertory Theatre.

Nottage holds degrees from Brown University and the Yale School of Drama. She also is an alumna of New Dramatists. She is currently a visiting lecturer at the Yale School of Drama and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, filmmaker Tony Gerber, and daughter Ruby.

The Pulitzer finalists were:
Becky Shaw by Gina Gionfriddo, a jarring comedy that examines family and romantic relationships with a lacerating wit while eschewing easy answers and pat resolutions.
In the Heights by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, a robust musical about struggling Latino immigrants in New York City today that celebrates the virtues of sacrifice, family solidarity and gritty optimism.

And this year’s jury comprised Dominic Papatola, theater critic, St. Paul Pioneer Press (chair); John M. Clum, chair, department of theater studies, Duke University; Jim Hebert, theater critic, San Diego (CA) Union-Tribune; David Henry Hwang, playwright, Brooklyn, NY; and Linda Winer, theater critic, Newsday.

Visit www.pulitzer.org for a complete list of this year’s winners.

Here’s Nottage doing a radio show on the topic of Ruined, with Saidah Arrika Ekulona, who plays Mama Nadi: