The Africa Trilogy: Aptly Complex

tony nappo, jane spidell, maev beaty, trey lyford
I always feel apprehensively unqualified speaking about Africa. It makes me feel uncomfortable how often I hear the word casually tossed around, as though “African” denotes one culture, one tradition, one community by which sixty-one specific territories and one billion people can all be painted with the same brush. It seems to me that within sixty-one different territories, one would find more than sixty-one different stories, different heritages and customs- a glorious individuality. Currently, North Americans and Western Europeans seem to have a complex and contradictory relationship with Africa, as we are continually implored by our media to “Save Africa,” but at the same time our governments have been quite firm that a dramatic reallocation of the world’s resources is implausible if it threatens the way of life of the wealthy and the economic infrastructure of the Western World.
Even if we dedicate our lives to “saving Africa,” how much do we really know of the continent? How much do we really understand its intricate histories and tangled cultures and politics; how well do we respect and appreciate all sixty-one of its unique territories? How well can we help an entire continent that we don’t understand, especially when many of us live under the illusion of knowledge? Who is the authority on “Africa”: those who are born there? Can they speak for the people in all sixty-one territories? The scholars who write books and conduct research; those who study Post-Colonialism? African Americans who claim that Africa is the Motherland? Canadian Relief Workers who save African children from dying? Whose perspective can we trust to be the truth?
The programme for Volcano Theatre’s The Africa Trilogy, commissioned by LuminaTO and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, comprised of three plays written by three different playwrights, each with its own director, all from different cultural backgrounds states: “Just who do they think they are? Just who do they think we are? Just who do we think we are?” suggesting that we should abandon our quest for the “authoritative” voice; that the richness, the incongruity, the density and complexity of Africa can only be appreciated and expressed by a multitude of voices, an array of perspectives, a collection of stories.
Due to a tragic and unexpected scheduling mishap, I was not able to see most of Binyavanga Wainaina’s play Shine Your Eye, which was especially disappointing, as Wainaina, a Kenyan, was the only African playwright who contributed to the trilogy. And thus, I must begin my review in earnest with the second of the plays, German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God.
This play was widely considered to be the strongest of the trilogy, which is interesting considering that it was also the one play that had an entirely white cast, was set in the Western world and in which the concept of Africa was at the hub of the story, but the reality of Africa remained very much on the periphery. Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God centres on a reunion dinner party between two couples, friends who have not seen each other for six years. Maev Beaty and Trey Lyford play Carol and Martin, two doctors who have just returned from years treating patients in Africa. Jane Spidell and Tony Nappo play Liz and Frank, their friends who have developed an emotional connection to a sick little African girl, an orphan called “Annie” that Carol and Martin have been caring for, whose treatment they have been sponsoring, while sending her clothes, toys and letters from their own daughter. When Carol and Martin return home without the little girl and without information on her whereabouts or wellbeing, tempers flare and egos collide between all four dinner guests.
The acting in this play was absolutely exquisite as Beaty, Lyford, Spidell and Nappo charged every moment, especially the silences, with tense awkwardness and lots of big fake smiles and big fake laughs which were reflected nicely in Schimmelpfennig’s dialogue, which continually thrust all four into embarrassing territory. Tony Nappo gave a lovely performance as Martin, a man desperate to keep the peace as the host, but whose ire bubbled continually closer to its breaking point as his wife kept throwing him into the center of every conflict. Maev Beaty’s Carol was perfectly repressed, guilt-ridden and defensive, like an ice statue always threatening to shatter into a million pieces. Jane Spidell’s Liz seemed, on the other hand, an ever-flowing fountain of freely frothing emotion and confusion, who kept trying to hold the pieces of her heart together, while shoving her tears and her anger sloppily back into herself.
Schimmelpfennig does not provide resolutions for these characters, nor does he condemn nor advocate any one point of view. He presents the two doctors as having their goodwill corrupted by the realities they confronted in Africa, complex issues that the couple who chose to stay behind cannot appreciate or understand. Yet, the play continues to circle back to Annie, the child Carol and Martin, for all intents and purposes, abandoned to die. The script rewinds itself to give specific moments an added element of significance and the way the piece is directed by Liesl Tommy, the audience feels as though their perspective on the evening is becoming increasingly wine soaked and spinning as erratically as the characters’ minds.
In all Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God is a captivating play and one that tackles some extremely complex issues without becoming at all pedantic. I think that it is the piece that will undoubtedly be plucked from this trilogy to be produced more widely as time goes on.
GLO, written by Christina Anderson, was the play that was seen as not quite hitting its mark by many that I spoke to or whose reviews I have read, but for me, while it was not as theatrically satisfying as Peggy Pickit, it raised some questions that I think are not examined quite as often here in the Western World as the ones confronted by Schimmelpfennig. GLO takes place simultaneously in New York City and Keyna and is centered on a Kenyan speaker, Lydia, at a Global Diversity Conference, whose best-selling book has pulled her out of abject poverty. Her brother, Benjamin, remains in Kenya. Lydia’s exoticism is fetishized to varying degrees by all those she meets in New York, as it revealed that all the Western characters, whether they are white or black, relate to her more as being “African” rather than simply seeing her for her individuality, her personality and the integrity of her heart. To complicate matters, however, Lydia has attained her success by exploiting the Western World’s fascination with Africa, and its desire to feel connected to the land that we are, at least historically speaking, guilty of plundering and neglecting. At the same time, GLO shows that despite Lydia’s achievements, there is little she can do to create solutions for the larger problems in Kenya which have her brother and so many others so deeply ensnared.
Maev Beaty was incredible as Miriam, an overprotective conference organizer who seemed to want to swathe Lydia in bubble wrap, Araya Mengesha gave a heart-rending performance as Benjamin and Dorothy A. Atabong was utter perfection as Lydia. She played her with a distinct detachment, but still filled with charm and dignity as she digested the wonders of New York for the first time, although always heavy with a concern for her brother that seemed to inhibit her from truly experiencing the joyfulness that her success warranted.
Josette Bushnell-Mingo directed this play to capture the whirling chaos of both New York and Kenya and to show the overlap between the way that all the characters of all different nationalities and backgrounds interacted with one another.
I wish that I had gotten the opportunity to see Shine Your Eye, and I hope that Volcano Theatre will have the opportunity to remount The Africa Trilogy because it is a very strong and provocative evening at the theatre and it is always so inspiring to see the fruits of the labours of love when a conglomeration of artists from across the world come together and share their vision, creativity and talents with one another in the creation of something truly creative and unique.