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The Dark Kalamazoo

Our DC correspondent liked this play written by and starring Oni Faida Lampley very much when she saw it four years ago at Washington's Wooly Mammoth Theatre. Having now seen it in its lates incarnation at Greenwich House, home of the Drama Dept of which Ms. Lampley is a founding member, I agree that this is one-person, dramatic storytelling at its most theatrical, and that the praises Dolores Whiskeyman heaped on this piece hold up even though the director and design team have changed. That said, I found that Ms. Lampley rambled on just a bit too long and I would have welcomed a more judicious use of a blue pencil, especially during the latter part. The rambling aspects of the memoir are diffused by Kevin Campbell's wonderful, unobtrusive musical accompaniment on an array of familiar and unsual instruments unobtrusively tucked behind a dark scrim. Below are the current production notes. -- Elyse Sommer

Written and performed by Oni Faida Lampley  Sound design, original music composition & live performance by Kevin Campbell
Directed by T. Prewitt

Set Design: Allen Moyer
Lighting Design: Heather Carson
Costume Design: Gregory A. Gale
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission  Greenwich House Theatre, 27 Barrow St. (off 7th Ave. So), 212-633-9632,
From 9/17/02-10/13/02; opening 9/25/02
Tues-Fri at 8pm, Sat at 3 and 8 pm, Sun @ 3pm-- $35

---Our Review of the play at Wooly Mammoth by Dolores Whiskeyman

" Dancing is just staying upright while life kicks the shit out of you," declares Oni Faida Lampley in The Dark Kalamazoo, her comic remembrance of misadventure as a college student abroad. 

Those painful memories form the basis of Lampley's one-woman show now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through December 12. Performed by the author, Dark Kalamazoo is by turns hilarious and poignant, a coming of age tale that manages to be both familiar and fresh at the same time. 

Lampley was 19 when she went to Sierra Leone in the late 1970s. She expected to find communion there among the descendants of black slaves. Instead, she was greeted with cool indifference to her own dark skin and a disdain for her romantic expectations. (Dark Kalamazoo is the term the natives reserved for her, the only black student among a group of white students from Kalamazoo College). 

Who cannot relate to a young woman's search for herself? But how many such tales are told against a backdrop so exotic as this? Sierra Leone, a "grab-bag" country first populated by freed slaves, "white trader do-gooders" and 300 native tribes, was overrun with mosquitoes and lizards as Lampley recalls it, an obstacle course of zealous missionaries, sneering locals, lustful old men and quicksand bogs. And it was in no way impressed by her. 

"When they heard a black woman was coming, they were expecting Diana Ross," Lampley says, "but they got me." 

That rough grinding of expectation against the hard edge of reality provides most of the laughter as it reshapes Lampley's alter ego, Vera, from a timid girl to a Strong Black Woman. It is that journey that forms the arc of the story. 

It is a tribute to both Lampley's talents as performer and her abilities as a writer that she has escaped the trap of narrative in this play, particularly considering that the work originated as journal entries. Over the course of four years, Lampley massaged the journal into dramatic form with the help of director-dramaturg Lynn M. Thompson. 

Lampley is a New York stage actress and writer with a long list of film and theatre credits (she appeared most recently in Arthur Miller's The Ride Down Mount Morgan at The Public Theatre in New York). Thompson is probably best known for her dramaturgical work on Rent (which led to a much-publicized lawsuit against the estate of its composer, Jonathan Larson.) Together Thompson and Lampley have fashioned a theatrical event that moves beyond storytelling. 

Lampley performs on a brightly colored set designed by Lewis Folden and lit by Lisa Ogonowski. She shares the stage with Kevin Campbell, a Washington, D.C., musician who wrote and performs the music that underscores the piece. But the music is more than incidental. Campbell and Lampley create a dialogue of their own, with the music as counterpoint to the narrative, pushing the story along from vignette to vignette. 

The structure that Thompson and Lampley impose on her remembrances pits Lampley as a young and middle-aged Vera against Lampley as her exacting and not always loving mother. Lampley also plays Vera's girlfriend, the young men who woo her, and the unsympathetic strangers she encounters in Sierra Leone. She is a captivating performer, and she renders each character through simple strokes of gesture and voice. Her mother has one hand dangling with a cigarette, the other barely holding a nearly empty cocktail glass, her body slumping with the weight of her own wisdom. Lampley renders each character so effectively you almost forget you are watching only one actor on the stage. And she does it without changing a shred of clothing. 

At play's opening, Vera is 40 years old and exasperated with her husband. She finds comfort in looking back on her childhood in Oklahoma and her pragmatic Catholic mother, who warns her that a black child must never be caught without dimes for a phone-call home. 

The sense of estrangement began early for Vera. "I remember the night I found out I was a nigger," she says. Scared, alone, tapping on car windows in a parking, 12-year-old Vera begs for money to make a phone call and is ignored. The people in the cars look at her in ways she cannot understand; all Vera wants is a nickel so that she can call her mother. The feeling of ostracism stays with her and goes with her to college. Vera longs for a sense of belonging to something greater than herself--a longing that resonates in her like a drumbeat. 

So it is fitting that Lampley chooses the metaphor of dance to tell her story--the dance of anger, the dance of love, the African rhythms Vera romanticizes as a student in the United States, the disco dancing that so dismays her in Sierra Leone. It is the disco that brings Vera to her destiny-- Rodney, a Creole student who initiates her into the rites of love and rejection. 

It is a painful process, this learning to be a Strong Black Woman, but Vera ultimately is improved by it, and tells her story as only a true survivor can. And if that story meanders a bit--as this one does--it is nevertheless an entertaining ride. 

written and performed by Oni Faida Lampley 

Directed by Lynn M. Thompson
Set Design: Lewis Folden 
Lighting Design: Lisa Ogonowski 
Costume Design: Reggie Ray 
Music Composed and Performed by: Kevin Campbell 
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission 
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 1401 Church St. (202) 393-3939 
Opened Nov. 10, 1999 closes Dec. 12, 1999 
Reviewed by Dolores Whiskeyman Nov. 23 based on a Nov. 20 performance

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