By Bruce Norris
- Directed by Pam MacKinnon
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Rosalind Lacy
We’re thrust into a fictional West African country with an edgy prologue delivered by Etienne (Kofi Owusu), an African teenager who wears earphones, carries a digital MP3, and shouts at us from the audience balcony to go home and watch TV, save time and money. Do not watch this “no good” show, he warns us. Don’t take him seriously and leave. The Unmentionables by Bruce Norris, when brilliantly performed by a troupe of polished actors, as it is here, is worth the stay, even if it raises questions that make us squirm.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre, now in its 28th season, has a hilarious hit that centers on religious hypocrisy, race prejudice and imperialism. What better targets than liberal guilt in the face of poverty, private greed in collusion with corrupt foreign government, and the use of brutality in a democracy, disguised under the best of intentions. Clearly individualized, likable characters remind us of our next door neighbors here in America and of—well—maybe even ourselves.
Four Americans have invaded a remote African village with their own egocentric motives for improving living standards and instilling self determination. An exotic villa dwarfed by towering, real-looking tree trunks, by award winning set designer James Kronzer, puts us there.
Entrepreneur and factory owner, Don (Charles H. Hyman), although insensitive to the real needs of the local people, believes he is doing good and making a difference. He generously offers his plush digs, as a refuge for two literally burned out Christian charity volunteers. Dave, the virgin, (Tim Getman) who with Boy Scout-like enthusiasm takes the Bible to bed to read, is determined to spread the good word to the local children. But he’s frustrated and confused because some village residents have set fire to the school he is building.
His platonic fiancé, Jane (Marni Penning), a former television writer, who is tired of pandering her talents before a mindless American audience, may be taken in by the soulful eyes of hungry children but her missionary zeal to do something meaningful cools under impoverished conditions. She prefers a queen sized bed to a goat hut littered with droppings.She says she suffers from fibromyalgia. Is her illness real, or is she faking it to lounge in luxury?
When Don, the businessman, and Dave, the evangelist, clash, Norris’ razor barbed dialogue, comes so fast and makes us laugh so hard, we forget any needling pain. After attacking Don’s pollution of the environment that dislocates people and forces 12-year old girls into prostitution to support their families, Dave walks out into the night and into what is assumed a kidnapping. And here is where the story turns serious.
The Africans, who also are flawed, seem more honest about themselves in how they see the situation. The Doctor (John Livingstone Rolle), recalls that colonialists have been coming for the good of Africa for over 500 years. His salty one-liners pierce any politically correct pretension by asking why Americans are any better than the French (which is sometimes spoken in the play) or the Belgians in coming to Africa. “Couldn’t you find no poor people in your own country?” The Doctor comes out to be the most humane and moral, compared to all the others, in the way he knows when to walk away from wrongful decisions.
In dealing with a crisis, Don’s ditzy wife, Nancy (Naomi Jacobson), dressed in spike white heels, zebra-striped blouse, and white pedal pushers in the first act, relates any sign of local unrest to her own childhood experiences in non-stop, manic-depressive chatter. Jacobson delivers a bravura, tour-de-force, presto tempo performance that hypes every encounter into scenes that could have descended from the Tower of Babel. In one of her pin-drop still moments, she laments of the post 9/11 era and the suspected kidnapping, “You would think they could be more compassionate.”
Caught up in our own post 9/11 mind set, we fear and expect the worst when cultural misperceptions and impulsive assumptions lead to almost catastrophic events. But director Pam MacKinnon’s breakneck pacing heats up and never lets go of our attention, even when the ultimate plot twist is predictable.
The fiery local government matriarch, Aunty Mimi (Dawn Ursula), dressed in gorgeous, richly-textured caftans, especially the yellow with silver trim, (thanks to costume designer Helen Q Huang) has no illusions about the limits of her dictatorial power. Ursula is mesmerizing in the way she conveys her contempt of anything she perceives to be weakness.
Norris doesn’t let us off easily. The play closes where it began with an epilogue by Etienne, the African teenager. The ending seems unfinished, maybe deliberately so. Any hope of redemption is up to us. But the dark comedy in The Unmentionables will jump start you into thinking about those false conclusions we jump to and the unmentionable questions we avoid asking.
Running Time: Two hours with one 15 minute intermission.
The Unmentionables continues through Sept. 30th, at Woolly Mammoth at 641 D Street, NW (7th & D) Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Sept. 9, 16 and 23. Tickets-Regular: Wed., Thurs. Sunday evenings, $44 & $35; Fri. evenings and Sun matinees, $51 & $42. Sat. evenings $57 & $48. Stampede seats: Woolly’s rush-seat program, offers a limited number of side balcony tickets at $15/ Seats sold two hours prior to show-time, in-person only. Meet The Artists Post-Show Discussions: Wed., Sept. 5 (after 8 p.m. show); Sun. Sept. 9 (after 2 p.m. show); Thurs., Sept. 13 (after 8 p.m. show).
Call 202-393-3939 or go to www.woollymammoth.net.