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Just a half-block away, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, African Continuum Theatre offers a strikingly new take on a story originally conceived as a critique of religious philosophies. George Bernard Shaw’s The Adventures of the Black Girl and Her Search for God follows an African youngster named Charlotte through a series of encounters with divine lawgivers—God, Jesus, Muhammad, Voltaire, and finally Shaw himself.
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Ed Shockley reimagines the story in The Oracle as the tale of an African princess leaving home to learn about her place in the world. When told that it was God who made her father king, adolescent Charlotte decides to find him and ask why. Her journey leads her to shamans in caves, ogres in trees, captivity on a slave ship, descent into a hell populated by giant laughing earthworms, and an eventual return to her ancestral home, where she arrives wiser—but filled with a “deeper emptiness” than when she left.
Though Jennifer Nelson’s staging employs puppeteers, masks, and a vast cloth baobab tree to animate Shockley’s text, nothing she and her designers have dreamed up is half so amusing as Erika Rose’s spunky, impudent Charlotte. The actress cajoles, importunes, giggles, dances, sings, and finds endless fascination in a text that chronicles such adventures as her character’s first experience of snow (“cold falls from the sky like ash”) with evocative grace.
If the play feels unfinished in this world premiere, that’s largely because it seems unsure whether it’s aiming to entertain children or a more thoughtful audience. The staging tends to go in the former direction, the script in the latter, and the production ends up poised precariously in between. Still, credit Nelson, who selected The Oracle as her swan song as artistic director of African Continuum, with seizing on an apt metaphor both for the personal adventure she’s beginning and for the tricky, unpredictable world the troupe she’s spent a decade nurturing will inhabit without her.