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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Waafrika 123
20% Theatre Company
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The 4 Seasons and A Prelude to Faust


Dua Saleh
Photo by Kristen Stoeckeler
Waafrika 123 is the first play of an intended trilogy by playwright Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko. It is being staged by 20% Percent Theatre Company in its first full production since premiering last spring at Theatre FIRST in Berkeley. It is a brave and difficult play: brave in tackling head-on themes of gender identity, gender mutilation, and cultural imperialism; difficult in the blunt depictions of those themes and their impact on its central characters.

Mwaluko was born in Tanzania and raised mainly in Kenya, the setting for Waafrika 123. He worked for the Reuters news agency's regional headquarters in East Africa, with ready access to stories from the remote countryside. While attending Columbia University in New York City, Mwaluko transitioned from the female body of birth into a male, both in body and spirit. The characters in his play are fictional and the situation is devised, but it takes place in the historically accurate context of the playwright's homeland. Clearly, Mwaluko's dramatic work reflects upon his personally lived journey.

It is 1992 in rural Kenya. Bobby is a white U.S. Peace Corps volunteer and an out lesbian; Awino, who was born female but identifies as a male, is in a joyfully intimate relationship with Bobby. Awino is the favorite among twenty-nine children fathered by the Chief of the village. Early in the play, Awino is a young child pleading with his father to be allowed to go to school. The Chief scoffs at him, as education is only needed by boys. When Awino says, under his breath but loud enough for Chief to hear, "I am a boy," the door opens to all the conflict and heartache that follows.

Awino's mother died when he was very young, but Chief's three other wives all play a part in mothering him. First wife Mama Mugabe dominates them all, and she advocates fiercely for traditional values and customs. At the time that Awino entered into a relationship with Bobby, a drought sets in and food becomes scarce. Mama Mugabe is certain this is the mark of their ancestor's anger at Awino's great offense to them. She further attributes Awino's "unnatural" desire for women to the fact that, contrary to their custom, Awino has not been circumcised. Mama Otieno is second wife, supporting Mama Mugabe to protect her own interests, but aware of the contradictions between traditional beliefs and the reality of modern life. Mama Opio, the third and youngest wife, is trapped in her position. She extends kindness to Awino, and gives clear indications that were she as bold as Awino, she might have chosen a different path for herself as well.

In the face of political opposition and upcoming elections, the authoritarian President of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi, used antagonism toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons to divert attention from challengers to his rule and to prop up his claim of moral leadership. He called for a total purge on homosexuality, encouraging citizens to expose and punish—in any way they felt suitable—anyone suspected of homosexual behavior. For Bobby and Awino, this news tears their lives asunder. For Mama Mugabe, it empowers her to deal with Awino as she sees fit, while Chief remains torn, between duties passed on to him by both his tribal ancestors and his president, and his love for Awino.

Mwaluko takes his time, dramatically, laying out the needs and conflicts felt by each character. We see, over time, Awino's and Bobby's relationship become stronger, bound both by a hot sexual chemistry and an understanding of their common core despite so many obvious differences. We see the Chief assert his authority over Awino, even as the strength of his love for his daughter holds him back. We come to understand Mama Mugabe's point of view, horrendous as such cultural practices as genital mutilation seem to us, recognizing that she can only see life as she has lived it, and that our values mean nothing against what she has known to be truth in her life. Most gratifyingly, we see Awino grow in knowing and believing his own truth, and finding the courage to stand up for it.

It does feel, however, that Bobby's character is surprisingly cavalier regarding the risks she takes, to say nothing of the risks to Awino. One would expect someone who passed the rigorous Peace Corp screening process to be more astute to the need to fit in to the culture of their assigned location. By the end, though, Bobby loses her sheltering veil of privilege, and we see her recognize that she is not exempt from danger and struggle.

Dua Saleh is amazing as Awino, expressing a complex array of emotions, from the shame of negating his ancestral traditions, to anger at Bobby's blindness to their dangers, to grief when visiting his mother's gravesite, to the intense arousal prompted by Bobby's desire for him. Saleh dissolves fully into the character, so that it never feels like acting, but like watching a young adult blossom into full being right on stage. Briana Patnode, as Bobby, is burdened by her character's early failure to grasp how troubled are the waters around, but Patnode soars when she conveys Bobby's electrically charged desire for Awino. When calamity descends, she ably reveals Bobby's personal strength and conviction.

Antonio Banks underplays the Chief, giving him less raw force than might be expected. While he inherited his position as Chief, to effectively wield such authority requires a degree of charisma and fortitude not seen as Banks portrays the man. Yet this makes his tenderness toward Awino and his submission to Mama Mugabe all the more believable. Brenda Bell Brown is an indomitable force as Mama Mugabe, stalwartly rooted in the ways of her ancestors, unquestioning of what is demanded of her, and in turn, what she must demand of others—while revealing a cunning resolve to look after herself. Brown makes Mugabe's ruthlessness crystal clear as she bargains with the Chief over his desire to acquire another, much younger wife, and her demands to discipline Awino as she sees fit.

Mama Otieno, played by Marcela, is quick witted and adept at seeing past the low-hanging fruit to the shade of the full tree. She lacks the authority of a First Wife, and the allure of the youngest wife, so must use an almost sophisticated charm to maintain her sway as a wife to the Chief, which Marcela enacts sublimely. Shenique Emelife conveys Mama Opio's vulnerability, fearful of having her true thoughts and feelings discovered. She shows herself to have great depths of courage, yet at the end, must submit to the order of things in order preserve herself.

Marcela also designed the costumes, which effectively show the subtle distinctions in roles and class among the characters. Courtney Schmitz' lighting design suggests the lush warmth of East Africa, then helps to present the nightmare into which Kenyan society descended. Madeline Achen's scenic design makes good use of the large playing area at the Minnsky Theatre, with two huts composed of long poles joined in a tepee-like fashion—one the western den of liberated sexuality that is Bobby's home, the other Chief's traditional abode. Director Brimmer effectively moves the scenes between these two spaces that are similar, yet worlds apart. A raised area in the rear provides several other locales for the play, but acoustics suffer during those scenes.

Mama Mugabe blames the encroachment of the British and Americans, doing so-called good work in the guise of the Peace Corps, and before them, as colonizers and missionaries, for eroding the spinal values of her people. Ironically, it was British missionaries who impressed upon the native Kenyans the notion of homosexuality being a sin that must be purged from their society. Before that, it was not an issue among the Kenyans. Some will say that is because before the westerners came, there was no homosexuality in Kenya, that is was an "evil" brought by the west. Is that possible? More likely, it existed, as it has in all societies, in an atmosphere of nonchalant acceptance with no need to call it out. But history can be tricky, and we can find ourselves reading to suit what we already believe.

With Waafrika 123, 20% Theatre presents some of that history, and as bold and brutal as it is, leaves room for interpretation. What is not disputable is the agony endured by both Awino and Bobby for nothing more than being true to themselves, and for having the courage to love. This powerful play, in a strongly directed production, with a strongly invested cast and a galvanizing performance by Dua Saleh as Awino, has a tremendous amount to teach us about history and how we read it.

Waafrika 123, a 20% Theatre Company production, through November 11, 2018, at Minnsky Theatre. 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. All tickets are sliding scale, $5.00 - $25.00. For information or tickets call 612-227-1188 or go to www.tctwentypercent.org .

Playwright: Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko; Director: Lisa Marie Brimmer; Scenic Design: Madeline Achen; Costume Design: Marcela; Lighting Design: Courtney Schmitz; Sound Design: Christy Johnson; Dialect Coach: Foster Johns; Stage Manager: Constance Brevell; Assistant Stage Manager: Keila Anali Saucedo; Assistant Director: Julia Nekessa Opoti; Props Design and Producer: Claire Avitabile.

Cast: Antonio Banks (Chief), Brenda Bell Brown (Mama Mugabe), Shenique Emelife (Mama Opio), Marcela (Mama Otieno), Briana Patnode (Bobby), Dua Saleh (Awino); Radio announcer voices: Ayesha Adu and Valencia Wolf.


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