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Theater Review
by Melinda Given Guttmann

"Kariuki's Notebook" by Rick Gray
February 22 to March 11
La MaMa E.T.C. (First Floor Theater), 74A East Fourth Street
(Presented by La MaMa E.T.C.)
Th-Sat at 8:00 pm, Sun at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, $15/tdf
(212) 475-7710
Reviewed by Melinda Given Guttmann February 24, 2001
It was a deep honor to witness a performance created by two exceptional artists: the surrealist text of "Kariuki's Notebook" by playwright Rick Gray, realized with linguistic and choreographic magic by director Sonoko Kawahara. "Kariuki's Notebook" is a profound, imaginative stucturing of an autobiographical "peak" experience. Gray, recently a member of the Peace Corps in Africa, portrays his story through the traumatized soul of his doppleganger, John Wolfe. The school where Wolfe passionately taught English to Kenyans has been replaced by a tourist resort. The dirty work of the new American imperialists has also included brainwashing the Kenyans to privlege economic trade over education. But Wolfe won't give up on his idealistic mission and just go home when told to.

Both Gray and Kawahara reflect their artistic lineages. In Kawahara, it is Andre Serban and Anne Bogart; more on that later. In Gray, it is the seemling artless simplicity of Sam Shepherd's early surrealist plays, a virtual no-man's land of a dreamscape, with an imaginative power play, of good and evil, good guys and bad guys in a Badland. In this anguished, black-comic environment is a clash of languages where the British sneer at inferior American accents. In the return of the Ugly American, a U.S. shrink stereotypes Africans as inferior children, using less polished racism than the phrases with which his colonist predecessor, a British Tour Guide, poisons the air while strutting in his Hollywood Safari guide garb. What you get is a playfully fun and funny play in which Wolfe anguishes over the loss of his students, the shrink wants to send him "home" to America, and the students naively want to learn English to be part of the Global Unity.

Talk about "virtual art" -- the play is set in a region where Kikuyu children are dressed up by Westerners in the robes of a rival tribe, the Masai, to make them more "authentic" in the eyes of tourists!

The title, "Kariuki's Notebook," comes from brutal and beautiful stories written by Wolfe's best student in his former English class. Language is always a translation from culture. Although, the British Tour Guide, the Shrink and the students are all speaking English, they are speaking from the musical diversity of dialects, but are translating from the constellations of each indiviual culture. French feminist Julie Kristeva claims that not only is all language a form of translation, but that "being" itself is a form of translation.

But Gray's work, translated (in this sense) from his autobiogaphy, is more than virtual art. There is a showdown in the firing of linguistic bullets, like Sam Shepard's language shoot out between jazz and rock and roll, with generational connotations. Gray's work also works on an actual level of experience. Africa is "home" of Wolfe because in terms of evolution, he and the Kenyans are one, because of the origin of all homo sapiens has been found by Leakey and his followers in Olgilvy Gorge in Africa. Historically and biologically, black and white are One. Gray investigates our roots by asking the question, what makes us human? His response to what distinguishes human consciousness from that of our Darwinian predecessors is that humans are art-makers, they tell stories. Some believe that to dance is to be human, some that Cave Art is what made us human, Gray insists that it is sitting around a fire story-telling.

The play's second most important American voice (after Wolfe's) is the authentic beauty of a middle aged actresses voice, Leona Greene, played with smashing compassion by Corinne Edgarly, who is lost in Africa until she finds herself acting out one of the stories to the students passion and passionate understanding. It is the primacy of art and the imagination that raises humans to their finest, most ethical states. This Romantic notion is made Millenial when Gray's outlandlish characterization of his English Guide (appropriately named Prickhorne) shoots a tranquilizer dart at spaced-out English teacher Wolfe, who then, brilliantly played by David Townsend, becomes a wild, one-man olympics, miming swimming, shotputting, and most hilariously a figure skater.

None of these intricate interplays of fake and authentic, racist and liberal, tragic and fantastic scenes would have been possible without the direction, more accurately, vibrant, ingenious, flamboyant choreography of Sonoko Kawahara. She, like Gray, relflects her lineage in her teachers Andrei Serban and Environmental Dance guru, Anne Bogart. No one can forget the thrilling mixure of language in Serban's "Fragments of a Greek Trilogy," or the daring movment of Anne Bogart's post-modernism. Kawahara intertwines these two strains with her own crisp, lucid, translucent style.

A blessing upon this play. It is dedicated to Ellen Stewart, LaMaMa's founder and continuing beacon light. My own life, of travelling to exotic countries, international festivals, and continuing to experiment with dance and performance art was shaped by LaMaMa's visionary productions, and the peak moment of my artistic life when Ellen Stewart told me that I had an enormous range of feeling and energy in my work. How many of her "children" have gone on to become internationally famous and influential? Untold galaxies.

This young playwright, his director Kawahara, and the students from Harlem School of the Arts, whose singing in native Aftrican language will break your heart, have had the torch properly passed down to them. They are the story-tellers that will predict the future of the theatre. Bless all of them. And bless the webmaster/producer of the New York Theatre Wire, Jonathan Slaff, for recommending this marvel to me; it is a miracle of a production. You have two weeks to go and get what it means to go "home." [MMG]

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