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Africa gets under your skin. It got under mine, in the year and more I spent in Zimbabwe and South Africa, and playwright Kira Lallas clearly spent enough time living in the townships near Cape Town for it to get way the hell under hers. Her Translations of Xhosa is as much exorcism as memoir, a desperate, deeply felt attempt to deal with the ideas and emotions that plague us privileged folk even afterand becausewe’ve managed to put such places behind us.
In the hands of director Karen Michelle Stanley, the piece is a swirl of sound and movement and storytelling, with Lallasas Zandi, the name her host family gave hernarrating the tale of one unnerving, unforgettable day in a range of voices that deftly captures the musical speech patterns of the region. (She’s proud, you can tell, of her diligence in learning to negotiate the tricky clicking sounds of the Xhosa language, but it’s more charming than off-puttingnot least because she’s also aware of the cultural implications of getting it right.) Singer and dancer Uzo Aduba moves expressively around the stage, sometimes echoing Lallas’ words and gestures, sometimes reacting to them as if she’s a bystander or a character in one of the vividly drawn vignettes. And sometimes the two of them sing, backed by Scotty Conant’s drum-and-guitar meditations, taking up a jaunty or mournful or defiant tune as the moment indicates, swaying and stamping to the music.
Cultural collision is a prominent theme, of course: Zandi finds any number of small wonders and sobering truths among the grinding poverty of the Langa slums, where young white women of any nationality are an extreme rarity and where her host mother’s plain concrete-slab house is among the more substantial dwellings. Girls gather outside it one morning, singing, dancing on ground that is “a thick, gray sand with huge, sharp pieces of glass, garbage…rusty hangers and nails in it. I’m wearing sneakers; they have no shoes at all.” One of them is covered in weeping sores. “She has the hugest smile, tucked into her shoulder….All I can think is What will I do if she starts touching me?” The girl’s name, it turns out, is Nomhle”Beautiful”and she asks if Zandi will be her mother.
Zandi will never be anyone’s mother, she tells us: At 20, she’s never gotten her period, and the doctors don’t know why. She’s acutely conscious of the boundaries of her womanhood, of the disappointments of her squarish, boyish body, so it’s an emotional moment when those rowdy girls want to touch her hair: “They are gasping and say, ‘It’s so beautiful!’ Inhle. My hair has never been beautiful before.”
And it’s terrifying when they begin to slap her, pinch her, giggling all the while. The older oneseven her host sisterlaugh, too, and then it all ends abruptly when one little girl slaps Zandi hard across the face. In response, “Busiswa takes the youngest girl near her…and hits her harder than I have seen anyone hit a child before.” Zandi sees the crowd watching her, understands that the rules here aren’t the rules she learned at home in Boston: “I know my reaction is important, so I pause to pick the correct response….I know the right thing is not reacting. But how can I not react to a single thing here? So I just start to cry. I don’t have the energy to be the perfect ambassador for America right now.” It’s revealed much later in Zandi’s tale that, in local lore, hitting white skin is luckyan idea that’s both amusing in this specific circumstance and startling considered in the context of South Africa’s brutal, bloody past.
As the day wears on, Zandi finds herself in situations that, in the retelling, arrange themselves as indicators of the power and the perils of womanhood in a place where order barely holds. “Here is the house where the social worker lives who helped me get out of my house so my dad would stop raping me,” her host sister says as they walk to the bus station. A dicey minibus ride with a menacing gangster and two high-school girls similarly emphasizes the vulnerability of a woman alone in a society even more male-dominated than our own; later, the tale of an African National Congress Women’s League meeting, with its defiant songs and its bleak stories and its stubborn insistence on the importance of divorcing South Africa’s ugly past from its still-uncertain future, is a penetrating reminder of the strength of determined women in league with one another, of how critical such leagues were in the anti-apartheid struggle.
Translations of Xhosa looks and listens respectfully as South Africa unfolds its treasures and its terrors to Zandi, but ultimately the piece is about her, about the transformative effect the place and its people have had on Lallas, the American woman behind the Xhosa name. It’s a coming-of-age storyfiguratively and, in one sense critical to Lallas’ self-understanding, quite literallywith all the attendant risks and rewards. There are moments, to be sure, when it seems self-indulgent, when the version of herself that Lallas presents comes across as just too culturally sensitive for words. (The cynical expats in Harare would have dismissed her as a TWOG, for “Third World Groupie,” if she’d shown up there talking in that vein.) And though as a writer she’s conscious of the potential for music in each of the languages she plays with, her ear isn’t yet fully attuned to their harmonies; the script clunks as often as it chimes.
But there is no mistaking the fact that Lallas is not, can never be, the person she was before she left Boston. She fits comfortably in neither place now; knowing a little of another life, she may well feel less at home in her own culture than in the one whose surface she had barely begun to explore. Here and there, the show expresses that reality in flashes of eloquence and clarity that make it rather more than a self-indulgenceand it crystallizes, in a conclusion of considerable power, how shattering such an awakening can be. CP