I hate it when I'm late to the party...
|Photo Courtesy of Genesia Williams|
But that was definitely the case at Waafrika last week. Unfortunately this little gem of a show is already closed - it was only on stage for a two week span - and I went late in the run with a friend. I wish I would have gone sooner, because there were so many great things to share with you!
Waafrika reminded me a lot of Cardboard Piano, a haunting new show at Park Square Theatre last season. It similarly tells a story of interracial queer love, this time set in Kenya in the early 1990s. Awino is the eldest daughter of a chief and chafes at the expectations put upon her by her tribe, especially regarding her sexuality. She falls in love with a local Peace Corps worker named Bobby and as word spreads of their romance life gets infinitely more difficult. Awino's father does what he can to protect her in the scope of his influence, but it's not enough - by the end of Waafrika, the tribe descends on Awino and Bobby and no action, no matter how drastic, is enough to save them.
The main difference I found between Cardboard Piano and Waafrika is that this time the show is written by and for people of color and queer people, and that difference really showed. The cast featured multiple trans and queer actors, only one white cast member, and an unabashedly direct story. This plot did not shy away from the dire consequences - which still exist to this day in many parts of Africa - that come from being proudly out in that region of the world. Characters endure female circumcision, rape and assault; thankfully, the cast did a masterful job of letting innuendo do most of the heavy lifting rather than graphically re-enacting these acts.
The striking thing about Waafrika that I keep ruminating on is how it was able to remain grounded despite the horrific circumstances in some of the scenes. This is a cast that clearly trusted each other implicitly; their connection felt genuine and I'd be willing to bet good money that several detailed conversations regarding consent were had before any love scenes entered the picture. There is also an implicit focus on beauty and goodness and intentional nuance. I can tell you with confidence that too many of the stories we see about Africa - or other areas designated as "third world" - focus solely on poverty and death and destruction. This is neither a fair nor honest representation of those regions. Imagine if all art about America focused solely on Flint's poisoned water system or the endless mass shootings we endure? It would hardly represent America as a whole. We do a great disservice to other people when we assume their lives can only be filled with bad things based solely on their zip code. In Waafrika, despite the hard circumstances these characters laugh, smile, reminisce, spark joy and just generally enjoy each other. Several direct asides address the audience on issues like female circumcision, complicating the running Western narrative that audiences bring to shows like this and forcing us to see such traditions through the characters' eyes. It was a refreshingly complex script that had a lot to offer, and I wish there was a clear way to share it with a wider audience now that it's closed.
This was also the first time I've been to Minnsky Theatre, a total shame since it's a total gem and is currently facing dire financial circumstances. One of the last spaces truly available to indie performers, it's definitely worth saving. The good news is - you can help with this! There's a fundraiser coming up on November 17 (more details by clicking here) to raise enough money to pay their outstanding debts. If you get a chance, please throw them a few spare dollars to keep their inclusive work going.
And I highly encourage you to check out the work 20% Theatre Company is doing. They always have unique stories to tell and performers who often don't get to star in other stages around town, and I promise you they're worth the trip. It's too late to see Waafrika, but you can click here to check out more about their mission and details about their next upcoming show in February 2019, Controlled Burn.