Dreaming Zenzile

Club Rep

Masked and vaxxed, we returned to Webster’s Loretto-Hilton Theater for the first time in a year-and-a-half. Our vaccination cards and IDs were both checked before entry to the building was permitted. Social distancing seating meant that the two seats to our left and right and in front and behind us were all empty. The seating for this show was considerably more congested than what we experienced last spring with the play, Mlima’s Tale, which was running at about 10% to 20% of house capacity. Still, operating at about half capacity the house was not full. It was a Thursday night after all. No refreshments were for sale. The regular paper program had been replaced with a PDF file that we scanned to our phones. The HVAC system was not running in the auditorium, causing a visible mist to form up near the ceiling. Another Covid precaution or a by product of the temperate weather? A lot has changed as the house lights dimmed and we sat, waiting to watch Dreaming Zenzile.

Zenzile is the African name for the woman known to the world as Miriam Makeba and regaled as Mama Africa. Dreaming Zenzile is the story of this South African activist-singer, told in retrospect as she performs on stage during her final concert, where she died immediately after leaving the stage. This play was originally scheduled to be performed in March of 2020 and was in technical rehearsal then, but has taken a year-and-a-half to finally reach the stage. This musical that is not a musical, doubles as a biography. Created by Somi Kakoma who also portrays Makeba on stage, Dreaming Zenzile tells the story of this woman’s life, from her childhood in apartheid South Africa, until her death on the world’s stage. Musical high notes are punctuated with the many tragic events that occurred throughout her life. Singing brought her the world’s attention, which she used to fight apartheid in her homeland and for civil rights in the US.

With this year’s Mlima’s Tale and Dreaming Zenzile, The Reps new Artistic Director Hana Sharif is definitely signaling a new direction for the Saint Louis Repertory Theater. Anne and I have been attending The Rep for much of Steven Woolf’s 33-year tutelage, who Sharif succeeded as artistic director in 2019. I was saddened to learn of Woolf’s passing this last July. Two plays are too small a sample size to form an opinion yet about Sharif’s artistic vision. I need to gather more data, which means we will continue to attend The Rep.

White Powders

Where Diatomaceous Earth Comes From

Diatoms are single-celled alga which have a cell wall of silica. Many kinds are planktonic, and extensive fossil deposits have been found. When we were in the Garden this week, at the home gardening center, I noticed that many of the plants had been dusted with a fine white powder. I asked a gardener if it was an insecticide? In a sense is was and it wasn’t. It was diatomaceous earth.

Composed from the bones of millions of microscopic diatoms that over the millennia had built up into a sedimentary layer, diatomaceous earth is sold as a natural alternative to chemical insecticide. Its sharp silica bones act as an irritant to insects, getting into their exoskeleton’s joints and tearing them up. It is less dangerous to humans than conventional insecticides, but care in its handling must still be taken. It is much safer to the environment than most insecticides.

In the play that we saw this week, Mlima’s Tale, the actor portraying the elephant Mlima, first smears his torso and face with white powder, evoking the ritual body painting of African tribes. This powder has a way of transferring itself, as an emblem of complicity, as each player playing a link in the chain that is the illegal ivory trade, is marked with a white powdered handprint on their bodies. In this instance the white powder was likely talc, but I wonder if the choice of its white color was supposed to be evocative of powdered ivory. Powder created when the ivory tusks are carved into objects d’art, their final form.

Mlima’s Tale

Saint Louis’s Own Raja – An Asian Elephant

Anne, Joanie and I returned to live theater for the first time in about a year-and-a-half, with the showing of Mlima’s Tale, at The Rep. We made a night of it, with dinner and a show. There were a lot of oddities about this performance, some of them Covid induced, some from the relative novelty of the experience. The venue was not at the Rep’s usual fare in Webster. We were in U-City at COCA (Center of Creative Arts). We dined in the Loop and having already sampled our two favorite restaurants there, last weekend, we tried something new, Salt + Smoke, STL style BBQ. It was good and not too WW budget busting. After dinner, we decamped to the theater. COCA has a beautiful new facility that I had visited once before as part of a bicycle ride no less. I was on one of Trailnet’s community-art rides. These rides are where various art related venues are strung together by two wheels. We did improv on that first visit to COCA. On this night, we were all seated in the audience, which was a very lonely place, what with seating available for only 10% of capacity. Masks were required and the play ran less than ninety minutes, but at least we got our toes in the water again.

Mlima’s Tale is a play narrated by an elephant, a dead elephant at that. It tells the tale of how African ivory goes from poacher in the bush to wealthy art buyers in China. It is a searing indictment of everyone involved. This play uses a story like approach, employing the La Ronde¹-inspired device of relating its story in short episodes in which one character from the preceding scene appears in the next. There are only four actors in this play. Three performers play the multitude of characters, including the poachers, a park warden, a police chief, an African government official, a Chinese collector, a Vietnamese smuggler, a boat captain, a master ivory carver and a wealthy art buyer. It is through these characters that three of the actors rotate through. The fourth actor, plays only one character that of the elephant Mlima, who is murdered in the first scene. As a ghost or more corporally as his disembodied tusks, Mlima guides us through the rest of the play. Unwillingly, he leads us from one hand to another, in the smuggling operation that is the illegal world ivory trade. A trade that has already seen the African elephant population fall from 1.5 million to 400K, since the outlawing of ivory trading and is on course towards African elephant extinction in the next twenty year or less. There are no good guys in this play. Only one victim and a multitude of perpetrators of his murder.

  1. La Ronde takes its name from an 1897 play of the same name.

The Mystery of Irma Vep

Irma Vep

We finished out the week, with another visit to the theater. This time it was at the Rep. The night’s vehicle was a light hearted farce, The Mystery of Irma Vep. This play is performed by only two actors, who between them play eight characters, with dozens of costume changes. This play is a satire of melodrama, farce and penny dreadful genres. It is loosely based upon a 1915 movie, Les Vampires. Irma Vep’s name is an anagram of vampire.

Here is the Wiki synopsis of the play:

Mandacrest Estate is the home of Lord Edgar, an Egyptologist, and Lady Enid. Lady Enid is Lord Edgar’s second wife, though he has yet to recover entirely from the passing of his first wife, Irma Vep. The house staff, a maid named Jane Twisden and a swineherd named Underwood, have their own opinions of Lady Enid. Enid is attacked by a vampire, and Edgar seeks answers in an Egyptian tomb, briefly resurrecting the mummy of an Egyptian princess. Returning home with the sarcophagus, Edgar prepares to hunt down the werewolf he blames for the death of his son and first wife. Meanwhile, Enid discovers Irma locked away, supposedly to coax out the location of precious jewels from her. Wresting the keys to Irma’s cell from Jane, Enid frees Irma only to discover the prisoner is, in fact, Jane herself, actually a vampire, and the killer of Irma as well as her and Edgar’s son. Underwood, now a werewolf, kills Jane, only to be shot dead by Edgar. In the end, Enid prevents Edgar from writing about his experiences in Egypt, revealing she was the princess herself, the whole thing an elaborate sham by her father to discredit Edgar. They reconcile.

Before the show, we had dinner at our new favorite restaurant in Webster, Frisco. Anne had their roasted chicken and I had the walleye special. Both of which were very good. This show concludes our theatrical outings for a while.

Pride & Prejudice

Pride & Prejudice

Mister Darcy. Call me, Neo. Mister Darcy, what makes you think that you are the one?

Being the one is just like being in love. No one can tell you you’re in love, you just know it. But you already know what I’m going to tell you.

I’m not the one…

Sorry, kiddo, but with such a pretentious first name like Fitzwilliam, how could it be anything else? What’s wrong with just William anyway? William is a perfectly respectable name. Why did you have to go and Fitz it all up? Well, my father was a William…

So, concludes this mini-Jane Austen recap, as I imagine the Wachowski brothers might reimagine. No happy ending. No Mrs. Elizabeth Darcy. A Shakespearian ending. A tragedy. At least no one died in Act V. There were only two acts.

As you might guess, we saw Pride & Prejudice last night at the Rep. A stage production that much more faithfully retells the story of the original Austen novel. As is typical of the Rep’s holiday productions, this play was a sumptuous affair. As I write this post and all the while she is busying herself with Saturday morning chores, as is her wont, Anne reads what I’ve wrote and is not pleased. “I would not have gone there, but it is your blog.”, she said. Everyone’s a critic. It seems that there is nothing I can do that doesn’t end up messing with her. Who moved my cheese? There is no cheese. There is no spoon.

I suppose that there is something scared in Jane Austen, to people of a particular persuasion. I sense this and respect their sensibilities. I suspect that most of these people are women. As a woman, Austen, pioneered herself as a novelist, in what was before only a man’s field. Parking forever her name in the annals of literature. It is only natural that I experience some pushback, as I toy with what is dear to others, but it is not as if I had gone out and kidnapped Brontë’s Jane Eyre, with only some vague promise of returning her by Thursday next.

PS — I know that I am a day early with the Hanukkah header, but scheduling demands dictate that it be so. Happy Hanukkah!

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story

We went out on a cold and rainy night to see this year’s Christmas production at the Rep. The holiday movie, “A Christmas Story” is a perennial classic that can be found every year on 24 hour TBS rotation. Like many a Broadway show these days, it has also been recast as a musical. The Rep’s production is similar to all these other vehicles, feeding off of the same source material, but is also different. 

Just not very much. While, not as redundant as yet another production of “A Christmas Carol” would be, this retelling lacked any spontaneity. Everyone was all too familiar with this story. The half-full house sat mostly silent throughout the first act, before warming slightly like leftovers in the second. Symbolic of this rehashed holiday offering is Ralphie’s too often repeated line, describing his long sought gift, “A Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock, and this thing which tells time.” The thingy was a sundial, which was funny once, but not so much after the umpteenth recitation. 

I understand that the annual Christmas pageant, with its accompanying revenue stream is a foundation for any company’s balance sheet. We’ve been season ticket holders long enough to know that next year’s inevitably edgier first show will draw only a fraction of this production’s house, but picking such a “safe” choice seems to have backfired this year. The Rep seems to have gotten more conservative over the years. Its ill-fated Off-Ramp series seems like the last time that it has boldly struck out. To bad the Great Recession killed that spirit. I’m not suggesting a return of “M. Butterfly,” but a little more adventurousness would be welcomed. Here is a suggestion. Next Christmas please bring back “Inspecting Carol.” I would enjoy seeing again this wickedly funny Dickens’ satire and unlike the current offering, I promise that I’ve only seen it once.