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CurtainUp DC Review
The Dark Kalamazoo
Our DC correspondent liked this play written by and starring Oni Faida Lampley very much when she saw it four years ago at Washington's Wooly Mammoth Theatre. Having now seen it in its lates incarnation at Greenwich House, home of the Drama Dept of which Ms. Lampley is a founding member, I agree that this is one-person, dramatic storytelling at its most theatrical, and that the praises Dolores Whiskeyman heaped on this piece hold up even though the director and design team have changed. That said, I found that Ms. Lampley rambled on just a bit too long and I would have welcomed a more judicious use of a blue pencil, especially during the latter part. The rambling aspects of the memoir are diffused by Kevin Campbell's wonderful, unobtrusive musical accompaniment on an array of familiar and unsual instruments unobtrusively tucked behind a dark scrim. Below are the current production notes. -- Elyse Sommer
THE DARK KALAMAZOO
Written and performed by Oni Faida Lampley
Sound design, original music composition & live performance by Kevin Campbell
Directed by T. Prewitt
Set Design: Allen Moyer
Lighting Design: Heather Carson
Costume Design: Gregory A. Gale
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Greenwich House Theatre, 27 Barrow St. (off 7th Ave. So), 212-633-9632, www.dramadept.org.
From 9/17/02-10/13/02; opening 9/25/02
Tues-Fri at 8pm, Sat at 3 and 8 pm, Sun @ 3pm-- $35
Dancing is just staying upright while life kicks the shit out of
you," declares Oni Faida Lampley in The Dark Kalamazoo, her comic
remembrance of misadventure as a college student abroad.
Those painful memories form the basis of Lampley's one-woman show now
playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through December 12. Performed
by the author, Dark Kalamazoo is by turns hilarious and poignant,
a coming of age tale that manages to be both familiar and fresh at the
Lampley was 19 when she went to Sierra Leone in the late 1970s. She
expected to find communion there among the descendants of black slaves.
Instead, she was greeted with cool indifference to her own dark skin and
a disdain for her romantic expectations. (Dark Kalamazoo is the term
the natives reserved for her, the only black student among a group of white
students from Kalamazoo College).
Who cannot relate to a young woman's search for herself? But how many
such tales are told against a backdrop so exotic as this? Sierra Leone,
a "grab-bag" country first populated by freed slaves, "white trader do-gooders"
and 300 native tribes, was overrun with mosquitoes and lizards as Lampley
recalls it, an obstacle course of zealous missionaries, sneering locals,
lustful old men and quicksand bogs. And it was in no way impressed by her.
"When they heard a black woman was coming, they were expecting Diana
Ross," Lampley says, "but they got me."
That rough grinding of expectation against the hard edge of reality
provides most of the laughter as it reshapes Lampley's alter ego, Vera,
from a timid girl to a Strong Black Woman. It is that journey that forms
the arc of the story.
It is a tribute to both Lampley's talents as performer and her abilities
as a writer that she has escaped the trap of narrative in this play, particularly
considering that the work originated as journal entries. Over the course
of four years, Lampley massaged the journal into dramatic form with the
help of director-dramaturg Lynn M. Thompson.
Lampley is a New York stage actress and writer with a long list of film
and theatre credits (she appeared most recently in Arthur Miller's The
Ride Down Mount Morgan at The Public Theatre in New York). Thompson
is probably best known for her dramaturgical work on Rent (which
led to a much-publicized lawsuit against the estate of its composer, Jonathan
Larson.) Together Thompson and Lampley have fashioned a theatrical event
that moves beyond storytelling.
Lampley performs on a brightly colored set designed by Lewis Folden
and lit by Lisa Ogonowski. She shares the stage with Kevin Campbell, a
Washington, D.C., musician who wrote and performs the music that underscores
the piece. But the music is more than incidental. Campbell and Lampley
create a dialogue of their own, with the music as counterpoint to the narrative,
pushing the story along from vignette to vignette.
The structure that Thompson and Lampley impose on her remembrances pits
Lampley as a young and middle-aged Vera against Lampley as her exacting
and not always loving mother. Lampley also plays Vera's girlfriend, the
young men who woo her, and the unsympathetic strangers she encounters in
Sierra Leone. She is a captivating performer, and she renders each character
through simple strokes of gesture and voice. Her mother has one hand dangling
with a cigarette, the other barely holding a nearly empty cocktail glass,
her body slumping with the weight of her own wisdom. Lampley renders each
character so effectively you almost forget you are watching only one actor
on the stage. And she does it without changing a shred of clothing.
At play's opening, Vera is 40 years old and exasperated with her husband.
She finds comfort in looking back on her childhood in Oklahoma and her
pragmatic Catholic mother, who warns her that a black child must never
be caught without dimes for a phone-call home.
The sense of estrangement began early for Vera. "I remember the night
I found out I was a nigger," she says. Scared, alone, tapping on car windows
in a parking, 12-year-old Vera begs for money to make a phone call and
is ignored. The people in the cars look at her in ways she cannot understand;
all Vera wants is a nickel so that she can call her mother. The feeling
of ostracism stays with her and goes with her to college. Vera longs for
a sense of belonging to something greater than herself--a longing that
resonates in her like a drumbeat.
So it is fitting that Lampley chooses the metaphor of dance to tell
her story--the dance of anger, the dance of love, the African rhythms Vera
romanticizes as a student in the United States, the disco dancing that
so dismays her in Sierra Leone. It is the disco that brings Vera to her
destiny-- Rodney, a Creole student who initiates her into the rites of
love and rejection.
It is a painful process, this learning to be a Strong Black Woman, but
Vera ultimately is improved by it, and tells her story as only a true survivor
can. And if that story meanders a bit--as this one does--it is nevertheless
an entertaining ride.
©Copyright 1999, 2002 Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
THE DARK KALAMAZOO
written and performed by Oni Faida Lampley
Directed by Lynn M. Thompson
Set Design: Lewis Folden
Lighting Design: Lisa Ogonowski
Costume Design: Reggie Ray
Music Composed and Performed by: Kevin Campbell
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 1401 Church St. (202) 393-3939
Opened Nov. 10, 1999 closes Dec. 12, 1999
Reviewed by Dolores Whiskeyman Nov. 23 based on a Nov. 20 performance
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