Sunday, May 26, 2013

Thinking Cap Theatre: WAAFRIKA (reviews)

Thinking Cap Theatre opened its production of Nick Mwaluko's WAAFRICA at Empire Stage on May 23, 2013.
Set in 1992 in a remote village outside of Nairobi just after the nation's first democratic elections, WAAFRIKA explores the struggle between traditional African values and self-identity.  Awino, a young Kenyan woman and a member of the Luo tribe, defies the codes of her community when she falls in love with Bobby, a white, American woman and former peace corps worker. Can their love survive?
Nicole Stodard directed a cast that featured Makeba Pace, Kim Ehly, John Archie, Carey Hart, Renee Turner, and Stephon Duncan.

Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
Fort Lauderdale’s Thinking Cap Theatre has just opened its bold production of Waafrika, a shattering and shocking play centered on the relationship of a lesbian couple in Kenya in 1992. 
The content of Waafrika and the play’s impassioned interpretation by director Nicole Stodard and her fearless cast are powerful, even overwhelming at times. But the script is not particularly well written, leaving the actors to make more of it (which they generally do) than Mwaluko’s words give them. Waafrika doesn’t begin to touch the brilliance of a play like Lynn Nottage’s set-in-Congo Pulitzer Prize winner Ruined...
The winsome Ehly and tormented Pace soldier on through the back-and-forth Mwaluko gives Bobby and Awino.
Archie conveys the dignity, worry, affection and anger in the Chief’s relationship with Awino. The affectionate bond the Chief has with Hart’s domineering Mama Mugabe provides a sweet, fleeting respite from the brewing crisis over Awino. Hart, playing a woman who is (to western eyes) the villain of the piece, boldly conveys the unquestioning embrace of brutalizing tradition. The play’s artfully staged final scene, involving all the wives and Awino, is excruciating and unbearable.

Thinking Cap, an increasingly significant South Florida theater company, is all about delivering provocative, intellectually and emotionally compelling drama. Though the storytelling in Waafrika is flawed, the story is an important one. 
Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
Thinking Cap Theatre’s production of Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko’s Waafrika is a deeply earnest and illuminating if imperfect examination of the toxicity of tradition. But even Waafrika’s flaws are washed away by one of the most harrowing finales seen on a local stage.

The arc of this tale is a tragedy, and we won’t give away the cringe-inducing denouement, but you’ll likely see it coming. That doesn’t rob it of an iota of its power as staged by director Nicole Stodard.
Among (Mwaluko's) gifts is a skill for creating rich, musical speeches for the African characters. He melds a rural vernacular with a lilting poetry that reflects a millennia-old symbiosis with the land beneath their feet. It is so lovely that the American’s speech seems blunt, out of place and even unconvincing, even when he gives her similar lines.
The pungency of Awino’s dilemma is rooted in the affecting central performance of Makeba Pace under Stodard’s guidance. Pace exudes the sense being ripped apart like someone being drawn and quartered by wild animals... Pace’s reputation exploded locally with her stunning turn as the agonized wife of the title character in M Ensemble’s King Hedley II last year. Once again, she proves herself as an actress to watch for.

Matching her anguish is John Archie as her father, the chieftain equally trapped – in his case between his conviction in his tribe’s ethos and his profound love for a daughter who has chosen a lifestyle he cannot accept. Among the production’s strengths is Archie’s completely credible depiction of a human being writhing in an insoluble dilemma...
Kim Ehly imbues a sincerity and patient understanding into the altruistic American refugee from a privileged background. But Mwaluko has given her the least convincing lines and her scenes don’t always land truthfully. She does create an admirable chemistry with Pace crucial to making their scenes work.
The other serious failing is that Stoddard, Pace, Ehly and Mwaluko stumble over the hairpin turns in plot and emotional direction... It all feels conflated and contrived
Other than Archie, it’s also a little difficult for these contemporary American actors to sell to an “enlightened” 21st Century audience what are inarguably accurate tribal sentiments... One of the chief’s wives tsk-tsks that the chief had Awino educated rather than married her off as breeding stock.... Mwaluko is not completely unsympathetic to the traditionalists. He has that same hide-bound character reference the fight for independence from the British. “We fought so this generation would not have to.”
This mixed bag of virtues and deficiencies still results in an intriguing evening of theater that speaks directly to the audience’s experience with struggling to be true to themselves in a world that is too slow to change.
 Thinking Cap Theatre presents WAAFRICA at Empire Stage through June 9, 2013.

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