Friday, March 4, 2011

Maternal Instincts

It's been quite a year for grotesque displays of maternal instinct. On one hand, there is the ubiquitous Sarah Palin talking about Mama Grizzlies as if they were destined to star in a new musical (maybe her fantasy is for Bruce Vilanch to play Madam Rose opposite Levi Johnston's sweetly dumb and butch portrayal of Gypsy Rose Lee). On the other hand, there was the tidal wave of publicity surrounding the publication of Amy Chua's guide to effective parenting entitled Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

Meanwhile, darker forces have been at work in the entertainment industry. In the midst of a full-blown meltdown, actor Charlie Sheen was shocked -- shocked, I tell you -- to have his children taken away from him. Bay area audiences, however, were treated to three spectacular displays of maternal dominance and motherly manipulation.

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Dereck and Beverly Joubert's new documentary for National GeographicThe Last Lions, doesn't paint a very pretty picture for the future of the species. In locales ranging from the Okavango Delta to Botswana's wetlands, this exceptionally beautiful film follows a lioness battling for the survival of herself and her cubs.

Poster art for The Last Lions

While it would be tempting to say "It's a real jungle out there," the truth is that heavy jungle growth has disappeared and Ma di Tau (“Mother of Lions”) is up against a combination of natural threats that could even intimidate one of the fiercest and most ferocious females on the planet.

Whether fleeing a brush fire, trying to get her cubs to cross a crocodile-infested river to safety on Duba Island, struggling to find food for her cubs, or simply working to avoid being gored or stampeded by water buffalo, Ma di Tau has her paws full. It doesn't help that a rival pride of lions (headed by a cub-killing lioness named Silver Eye -- who might just have a bone to pick with Ma di Tau) is eager to establish its dominance in a cat-eat-cat world.

A rival pride of lions running through the water

The sad truth is that there are now more lions in captivity than in the wild. As Dereck Joubert explains:
“We no longer have the luxury of time when it comes to big cats. They are in such a downward spiral that if we hesitate now, we will be responsible for extinctions across the globe. If there was ever a time to take action, it is now.”

Ma di Tau and her cubs

While The Last Lions will have strong appeal to animal lovers and conservationists, one can't help but marvel at the video captured by the Jouberts. Their documentary offers a sobering view of the challenges faced by a species getting closer and closer to extinction. As much as viewers may love watching animals in the wild, there's little doubt that the lions -- once regarded as among the fiercest predators on land -- are fucked. Here's the trailer:

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Although slightly less primitive, the conditions facing the women of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Ruined, are dismal on a good day, and nearly unbearable when matters get worse. Currently being performed at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Ruined meanders around the stage like a wounded beast of the jungle going insane in the heat of the blazing sun.

Once upon a time, the word "booty" was used to describe the treasure taken by pirates who plundered coastal villages and boarded ships at random. Since then, booty has become an American slang word for a person's buttocks, with a "booty call" becoming the vernacular label for an individual's request for casual sex.

However, there should be no mistaking the fact that while American conservatives wage a war on women's rights, the women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are the targets of a very real and brutal war in which rape is assumed to be the rightful reward for soldiers who capture, beat, and brutalize women. With more than 200,000 women in the Congo having become victims of rape, the psychological damage to the DRC's female population is incalculable.

Josephine (Zainab Jah), Sophie (Carla Duren), and
Salima (Pascale Armand)in Ruined (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Just as Dan Hoyle built his one-man show, Tings Dey Happen. on his personal research in Nigeria, Nottage's play attempts to look at war through the pained eyes of real women who are trapped in it, brutalized by, and become its victims. Once raped (or "ruined"), these women are scorned by their villages, their husbands, and often left in refugee camps where they are treated as prostitutes with no rights or protection. As Nottage explailns:

"In 2004 I went to East Africa to collect the narratives of Congolese women, because I knew their stories weren't being heard. I had no idea what play I would find in that war-torn landscape, but I traveled to the region because I wanted to paint a three-dimensional portrait of the women caught in the middle of armed conflicts; I wanted to understand who they were beyond their status as victims.
I was surprised by the number of women who readily wanted to share their stories. One by one, through tears and in voices just above a whisper, they recounted raw, revealing stories of sexual abuse and torture at the hands of both rebel soldiers and government militias.  The word rape was a painful refrain, repeated so often it made me physically sick. By the end of the interviews, I realized that a war was being fought over the bodies of women. Rape was being used as a weapon to punish and destroy communities. In listening to their narratives, I came to terms with the extent to which their bodies had become battlefields.
I found my play, Ruined, in the painful narratives of these Congolese women, in their gentle cadences, and the monumental space between their gasps and sighs. I also found my play in the way they occasionally accessed their smiles, as if glimpsing beyond their wounds into the future.  My play is not about victims, but survivors."
It doesn't come as too much of a shock to learn that Mama Nadi (Tonye Patano), the fiercely territorial woman who runs a brothel in the middle of the Congolese jungle, is herself a victim of rape. Her way of surviving has been to lay down the law in her barroom and brothel so that anyone who enters  lives by Mama Nadi's rules.  That means no loaded guns and a certain amount of respect for the girls to whom she offers shelter and steady employment.

In the surrounding jungle, rival militias are intent on gunning each other down, miners wander around hoping to get laid, and torrential downpours keep the atmosphere steamy when it is not already at the boiling point. Like Bertolt Brecht's famous Mother Courage, Mama Nadi walks a fine line between protecting "her girls" and making a profit off of their bodies. She functions as both a fierce protectress and a wily, willing enabler. It's far better to have her on your side than make her an enemy.

Oberon K. A. Adjepong and Tonye Patano in Ruined
Photo by: Kevin Berne

While there is much to admire in Nottage's script, Ruined rests under a dark cloud of hopelessness and helplessness. Gunfire is never far off, and the awareness that the women onstage can barely retain any sense of dignity is all pervasive. Whether the men are traders, young soldiers, power hungry commanders, or the musicians who keep people happy at Mama Nadi's bar, violence is just around the corner. The concept of hope is little more than a sick joke.

While Liesl Tommy's staging is immensely helped by choreographer Randy Duncan, fight director Steve Rankin, and set designer Clint Ramos, Ruined is not the kind of show that will have you whistling its tunes as you leave the theatre. You may want to set aside some quiet time for introspection or go home and make a gratitude list for all the blessings that, as an American, it's so easy to take for granted.

Of the large and extremely talented ensemble, I especially liked Oberon K. A. Adjepong's portrayal of Christian (a traveling salesman who has been pining after Mama Nadi for years), Zainab Jah's animated Josephine, Pascale Armand's impassioned Salima,  and Carla Duren's ever optimistic Sophie. Adrian Roberts (Commander Osembenga),  Joseph Kamal (Mr. Harari) and Wendell B. Franklin (Jerome Kisembe) offer strong portraits of the men impacting Mama Nadi's tightly-controlled world.

Mr. Harari ( Joseph Kamal) and Mama Nadi (Tonye Patano) in Ruined
Photo by: Kevin Berne

But the evening really belongs to Tonye Patano (famous for her work as Heylia James on Weeds), who dominates the stage with a leonine sense of territoriality and a no-nonsense attitude that serves to mask years of emotional and psychological pain. Hers is a most impressive performance.

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In one of those truly odd twists of fate, I ended up watching Sara Felder perform her one-woman show, Out of Sight, at The Marsh while most people were glued to the Academy Awards telecast. The audience that night was comprised mostly of people who didn't care about the Oscars or for whom live theatre was a much higher priority.

We were all amply rewarded by Felder's low-key monologue in which she uses juggling, shadow puppets, and a variety of props (ranging from lemons and binoculars to cigar boxes and telescopes) to mask the depth of the show's content and the poignancy of Felder's stories.

Sara Felder juggling life's problems (Photo by: Robert Corwin)

Felder grew up with a single mother who coped so slyly with her visual handicap that it was years before Sara learned that her mother was legally blind. Although her mother could function at a fairly high level, the subtle manipulations by which she got through life were often coated in large helpings of Jewish guilt ("Really, sweetheart, I don't mind your going to Israel and taking my eyes with you").

Along the way, Sara discovers that in Israel, being a lesbian is not half as shameful as being a reformed Jew. When one of her closest childhood friends becomes an Orthodox putz, his newfound sexism puts a severe strain on their friendship. And yet, when push comes to shove, Sara's mother (who is still trying to find out the code words shared by homosexuals) has given her daughter many a life lesson in how to turn lemons into lemonade -- as well as how to break down a wall with creativity.

As directed by David O'Connor, Felder's laid back warmth easily envelops the audience in a reassuring hug while her juggling skills (learned during her time as a member of the Pickle Family Circus) provide the mechanism that allows Sara to tell politically charged stories in a most nonthreatening way. The use of shadow puppets to explain how Sara's mother was blinded in her youth during a solar eclipse is a moment of theatrical gold (special credit goes to Morgan Fitzpatrick Andrews of Philadelphia's Puppet Uprising, who designed the shadow puppets).

Sara Felder with shadow puppet characters
Photo by: Jacques-Jean Tiziou

Whether balancing on a rola bola or juggling knives, Felder has a wonderfully nonconfrontational way of explaining that what may be good for the Jews isn't always so good for other people (especially if they're Palestinians). And maybe that's not really fair. The show (which continues through March 27) is a rare treasure of juggling, Jewishness, and odd juxtapositions which will send you out of the theatre on a cloud or reassuring warmth. You can order tickets here. In the meantime, here's a teaser:

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