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.
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