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In the earliest and weakest section of Lynn Nottage’s serio-comic fable Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine, its heroine, the founder of a Manhattan P.R. firm, describes her job to us as “catering to the vanity and confusion of the African American nouveau riche.” Before she was the mighty Undine Barnes Calles, she was merely Sharona Watkins from Brooklyn. But she was ashamed of her blue-collar family—security guards who aspired to be NYPD cops—so she gave herself a fancy name, cut off contact with her kin, and then, in an especially malicious flourish, told Black Enterprise magazine that her family burned to death. But when Undine’s husband drains her accounts and disappears, leaving her pregnant and penniless, she must cross the East River and ask the Watkinses, still alive and unburnt, to take her back.
That’s how Nottage has chosen to approach her literary reclamation project, repolishing a chestnut from Teutonic folklore that inspired novelists from a couple of prior centuries. Heinrich Karl de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine was published in 1811 and Edith Wharton reinterpreted the story as The Custom of the Country in 1913.
Nottage’s version was first staged in 2004, and it certainly feels like the product of a bygone era: In the intervening years, the playwright has become the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice, for one thing, for plays far more tragic and naturalistic than this one. You may have heard that we elected our first African American president, and that he used up most of his political capital getting a major health care law passed early in the first of his two terms. (Much of Fabulation’s midsection is spent making the case that the health care system fails the poor and must be remade.)
More recently, we’ve seen a serious re-examination of the notion that a heterosexual woman must have a male partner in her life if she she is to be a mother, or if she simply wants to be made whole. Like its precedents, Fabulation ends with Undine choosing to form a nuclear family with a good man she’s known for only a few weeks—they met in the court-ordered drug-counseling group Undine was wrongly sentenced to attend; it’s a long story—never mind that this guy cannot match her in intellect or ambition. (He’s played by the same actor who plays her bastard husband.) Are we meant to conclude that overvaluing these attributes was a symptom of Undine’s hubris?
None of these questions render the concerns of Fabulation moot, exactly, but they all make it feel more tentative than it may have when it was new. Mosaic Theater’s new production is a showcase that the brilliantly talented Felicia Curry has more than earned, but her performance here is so strident and over-punctuated with dramatic pauses, especially during her many protracted monologues, that it smothers much of the comedy. And once we get past the truly dreadful first 15 minutes, with Undine torturing her assistant with overly specific Starbucks orders and that sort of thing, there is rich comedy to be had.
Curry’s castmates, all of them playing dual roles, are unburdened by her narrative responsibilities, and director Eric Ruffin allows them to cut loose. Aakhu TuahNera Freeman is memorably wry as Undine’s tough cellmate and her smack-addicted grandmother, while Kevin E. Thorne brings a surprising dimension to the piece as Undine’s brother Flow, the member of the family who has the hardest time forgiving her disappearance. When he isn’t lecturing the shoplifters he’s pinched on the legacy of Nelson Mandela, Flow is composing an epic poem about Br’er Rabbit, a trickster with antecedents in West African folklore.
Ruffin’s most substantial flourish is to have the members of Undine’s family perform a “ring shout,” a call-and-response group dance ritual that enslaved people performed to give strength and succor to one another and to commune with their ancestors. It’s the most riveting section of the show, and the only part of it that feels more powerful than it might have in 2004.
To Sept. 22 at 1333 H St. NE. $20–$65. (202) 399-7993. mosaictheater.org.