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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Stanley Ann: The Unlikely Story of Barack Obama's Mother
Chameleon Theatre Circle
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, Emilie/Eurydice, The Night Alive and Sister Act

Beth Tangeman
Photo by Kari Elizabeth Godfrey
What an amazing woman, a fascinating story, and a strong performance! The play, well it serves as a vehicle to for a performance that tells the story of the woman. Stanley Ann: The Unlikely Story of Barack Obama's Mother is a play written by Mike Kindle, his first. It has been seen at a number of regional theaters over the past few years, and is now being presented in Minnesota for the first time, mounted by Chameleon Theatre Circle at the Ames Center in suburban Burnsville.

Kindle tells this story with just one actor who plays just one role: Barack Obama's mother, Stanley Ann Dunham. She would be considered a remarkable woman in her own right, even without raising a remarkable son. Unlike many solo plays with a performer who switches roles to portray various individuals, this play is structured as a series of conversations between Stanley Ann and the significant people in her life.

Stanley Ann's family moved often, landing in the brand new state of Hawaii in 1960. At the University of Hawaii she fell in love with the school's first student from Africa, Barack Obama, Sr. She was 18 when they married and the next year gave birth to Barack Jr., whom she called Barry. After the marriage ended in divorce, Stanley Ann met second husband Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student. Lolo was called back home after a political coup in Indonesia. A year later Stanley Ann and six-year-old Barry joined him, where she gave birth to Maya and worked in a variety of positions. In 1971, she sent 10-year-old Barry to a private school in Hawaii. He remained there through high school, living with his grandparents.

Stanley Ann discovered that American interests had manipulated events in Indonesia to push aside a government viewed as being in bed with the Communists in favor of a pro-western military dictatorship. She disavowed the embassy and set out to live a principled life making a difference for the good. That she did, earning both a aster's degree and Ph.D., developing micro-finance programs to bolster rural women's economic empowerment in developing nations, and holding various posts in banks and philanthropic organizations. In 1994 she organized the Expert Group Meeting on Woman and Finance in New York City, an event that served as launch pad for the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. In 1994 she also had the first symptoms of ovarian cancer, to which she succumbed in 1995 at the age of 52.

In the course of the play we hear Stanley Ann's part of conversations in Hawaii, Seattle, Indonesia, Pakistan and New York City with her parents, her husbands, her friend Maxine, her daughter Maya (Barry's half-sister), and Barry. Through these conversations we learn of the major events in her life and their impact upon her. At every turn she speaks not only about the event itself, but how it advances her world view and fits into a developing philosophy of life with integrity and meaning. It is fascinating stuff.

Still, because we only hear her part and no opposing views offered, it does at times have the feel of a tribute to, rather than a genuine portrait of, Stanley Ann Dunham. This limitation, built into the playwright's choice of structure, does not diminishes Beth Tangeman's stellar performance as Stanley Ann. Tangeman successfully carries off this enormous role, performed in 90 minutes without intermission. She reveals the struggles Stanley Ann faces as a single mother, as a woman in inter-racial marriages long before they were common (at one point she points out to Barack, Sr., that their relationship in Hawaii would be illegal in many states on the mainland), and as a crusader against an economic system that held back third world development, in particular the empowerment of third world woman. We feel the passion with which Stanley Ann led her life throughout its too brief duration.

During a lengthy key scene at an embassy party in Djakarta, she speaks directly to the audience, lubricated by drink. This marks a turning point for her, as she lashes out against the America that orchestrates coups, and aligns herself with the America that works on behalf of human betterment. That scene's power stems in part from the content, no question, but also from her talking directly to us, rather than through an unseen, unheard third party. In other scenes, she often repeats a question put to her by her partner in conversation, before launching into a response. While the device serves a framing purpose, it does become tiresome, and gives an unnatural quality to Stanley Ann's otherwise eloquent speech.

Jenna Rose Graupmann has designed simple costumes that, with the addition or subtraction of simple items such as a dress blouse, business jacket or sarong skirt, set Stanley Ann both in time and place. Corinna Troth's set establishes various locations by altering floor patterns—a Hawaiian beech, tropical gardens, urban paving stones. Julie Carlis' lighting and Anita Kelling's sound designs also guide the audience through transitions of time and place. In addition, projections at the opening of each scene announce the setting, a feature that serves the play and audience well. As directed by Andrew Troth, Stanley Ann is episodic and at times slows down when Ms. Tangeman leaves the stage to prepare for the next scene. Perhaps having these transformations occur on stage, making the play as open-faced as was Stanley Ann's life, would create a freer flow.

While this remarkable woman is a worthy subject in her own right, it is natural to wonder how much light the play sheds on the earl life of President Barack Obama. A couple of scenes directly involve his upbringing. In one, Barack Sr. visits Barack Jr., who is at that point ten years old, in Hawaii. That visit was to be the only significant contact between father and son. In a later scene, Stanley Ann and Maya visit Barack Jr. in New York City, where he was attending Columbia University. Most of the insights the play offers into our President, though, are by way of the heart and mind of his mother, and the values through which she made decisions that affected his life, as well as her own. Surely, the manner in which her life crossed racial lines, class differences, and international boundaries presaged the highly globalized world in which her son would become a key figure.

And, yes, her given first name was Stanley, though as an adult she generally went by Ann. She cites her name as evidence of her parents' idiosyncrasy, though never explains its origins. I since learned that it was her father's first name, and he had wanted a son, as well as the name of a much admired (by her mother) movie character played by Bette Davis. Take your pick. Either way, Stanley Ann Dunham lived an amazing life, and her story is very worth hearing. Thanks to Chameleon Theatre Circle for bringing this play, and this remarkable woman to us.

Stanley Ann: The Unlikely Story of Barack Obama's Mother produced by Chameleon Theatre Circle continues at the Ames Center's Black Box Theater through December 20, 2015. 12600 Nicollet Avenue South, Burnsville, MN. Tickets are $22.00, $19.00 for seniors, students and Minnesota Fringe Button Holders. For tickets call 952-895-4680 or go to

Written by Mike Kindle; Director: Andrew Troth; Scenic and Prop Design: Corinna Troth; Costume Design: Jenna Rose Graupmann; Lighting Design: Julie Carlis; Sound Design: Anita Kelling; Stage Manager: Clara Costello;' Technical Director: Andi Billig; Producers: Scott Gilbert and Jim Vogel.

Cast: Beth Tangeman (Stanley Ann Dunham)

- Arthur Dorman

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