“Did you make any friends from exotic places?” someone asks the narrator in The Dark Kalamazoo, the smartly crafted travelogue-of-the-spirit that Oni Faida Lampley has put onstage at Woolly Mammoth. The answer that comes back is characteristic of the show: “Yes. A blond, blue-eyed, diabetic white radical from Hilton Head, S.C.”
Acid, ironic, funny, and unfailingly frank, The Dark Kalamazoo is the recollections of a Midwestern woman who went to Africa looking for herself and found less than she’d expected. On paper, the concept looks fraught with the potential for disastrous self-indulgence; in performance, though, amid the golden shadows of Lewis Folden’s breathtaking Klimt-inspired set and backed by the seamless, unintrusive accompaniment of Kevin Campbell’s live musical design, what Lampley has created seems neither sentimental nor saccharine. The bitter, strangely satisfying aftertaste of hard-earned self-knowledge is seasoning enough to make the life lessons she recounts seem more than palatable.
Lampley’s dexterously crafted script trades on the rich, revealing contrasts between the knowing perspective of the mature woman who quite literally excavates her personal baggage in front of the audience and the equally compelling voice of her former self—a young woman of 20 or so, equal parts firebrand and fearful child. The Oni who sets out for Ghana is a wide-eyed baby radical, a daughter of Oklahoma City and of a hard-working, hard-drinking Strong Black Woman and no man—at least not one she ever knew. She’s a black studies major energized by the rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan and enraptured by romantic ideas about what she’ll find in a land where dark skin, along with broad thighs and wide hips and “asses like mine,” really is the default definition of beautiful. The woman who unpacks her stories from memory’s trunk, arraying them before us like so much brightly colored cloth, is a creature of fewer illusions, with a personality subtle and worldly and tired enough to make no more than a brief, bitter joke out of her own encounter with breast cancer—but a seemingly happier individual.
Diverted by a coup d’etat, the narrator finds herself in Freetown, Sierra Leone, the sole African-American in a company of “19 white kids from the suburbs of Michigan.” All of them are headed for Fourah Bay College, West Africa’s oldest, courtesy of the renowned academic exchange program run by Kalamazoo College. Startled by the poverty and disorder she finds, Oni nevertheless still nurtures her hopes: “I wanted to get off the plane, and somebody African would gasp, ‘I know you! That Fulani nose—Ashanti brow! Welcome home, my sister!’” The first of her illusions shatters when it becomes clear that her differences will continue to define her even here—when she’s welcomed by Africans who, rather than open their arms to her, point their fingers and call her the “Dark Kalamazoo.” “As the only American nigger on this campus, I never felt so alone,” Oni says.
Over-romantic expectations and the hard realities that puncture them are sturdy bones to build a play on, and the skeletons of Oni’s upended assumptions are fleshed out with sensual descriptions rich with color and texture and smell. Fou-fou, the inescapable starchy accompaniment to nearly every West African meal, is “a sour, potato-y substance…made from cassava. You dip it into a slimy sauce. It tastes like ashtray.” The local men do, eventually, confirm Oni’s beauty and sexuality, but they treat her as an outsider and object, not as a sister; the women keep their distance, offended by her forward ways and feminist ideas. She revenges herself on one particularly chilly classmate in a vividly observed, tautly recounted anecdote involving a surreptitiously sampled bowl of “greens…tomatoes, fish, and onions…dirty, palm oil-laden, ash-tasting stew” and “a tropical cockroach so huge it seemed prehistoric.”
Most of her experiences in Africa are like that stew—at once nourishing and disappointingly corrupted—but finally, at a seaside place called Shenge, there is an epiphany, an awakening that takes the narrator physically and metaphysically by surprise. The moment and its aftermath are described in rapt, hallucinatory prose that seems pale on the page but takes on weight and wonder in performance. Throughout the African scenes, the strong, sarcastic maternalisms of letters from home provide a warm counterweight for all the strange newness, along with a reminder that the narrator has come to Sierra Leone not just on her own, but as her family’s proxy: “Voices in my head [saying] ‘Write it, bring me, show me, kiss the ground for me, you are our eyes.’” Lampley answers those voices with the words and the warmth and the humor that is The Dark Kalamazoo, and, taken all together, what it says is “I have seen; I have listened; I have served you well.” CP