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CONTINUUM: VISIONS FROM YETUNDE
Ma’at Production Association for Afrikan Centered Theatre
at Body Politic Theatre
The Ma’at Production Association for Afrikan Centered Theatre says it uses “dance, music and poetry to illuminate the richness of Afrikan culture and emphasize the wealth of the Pan-Afrikan experience.” A noble aim, but MPAACT’s first stage play is nonetheless intolerably didactic. Though a wonderful orchestra–flute, keyboard, guitars, percussion, and harmonica–accompanies the performers with a splendid mix of African-inspired music, Continuum: Visions From Yetunde suffers from uneven writing and too little dance. Not content to let the beauty of African culture speak for itself, the several MPAACT members who wrote Continuum have packed the play with messages to young African Americans to embrace their roots.
According to the program, all traditional African cultures believe that the spirit lives on after death, and the Yoruba nation believes that if an individual has a strong presence while living, after death that soul will be remembered and live on for many generations as a clan spirit, eventually returning as a newborn baby: Yetunde means “mother returns.” But in Continuum this beautiful concept is ruined because Yetunde is an irritatingly all-knowing teacher who visits four confused young souls in their dreams and bombards them with wisdom from the ages.
Some of her wisdom is touching, as when she explains the tenuous nature of a spirit’s existence: “The worst pain is to be forgotten. I cannot live if you don’t remember me.” But much of her advice seems trite as she forces it on the four frightened young adults. They’ve suffered, but she seems to belittle their experiences by saying glibly: “Growth brings love, with love comes pain, and with pain comes wisdom,” and “There’s a certain desperation in searching for who you are.”
The young souls spend most of the first act describing their lives, Beneatha and Jasmine in sometimes humorous, sometimes touching monologues, and Jakuta and Marshall in overstated tales of prejudice. With childlike excitement the 19-year-old Beneatha (Ann C. Perry) describes a girlhood fantasy about the zebras who lived in her bedroom, and how heartbroken she was when they were taken away in a garbage truck. The childhood story Jasmine (Heather Ireland) tells begins in delirium and ends in pain. She was thrilled when her mother remarried, and she adored her stepfather until he tried to molest her. Then Jasmine told her mother, and the stepfather retaliated by calling her ugly. Says Jasmine, “I’ve been ugly ever since.”
While Beneatha and Jasmine’s monologues succeed at least as intimate portraits, the men’s tales attempt to speak for an entire race: the personal touch has been replaced with heavy-handed moralizing. Jakuta (played by director William S. Carroll) scrubs the floor in a kind of frustrated dance as a harsh voice offstage demands, “Aren’t you done cleaning that floor yet?” Virulently Jakuta mocks Yetunde’s words of hope and asks himself, how can he be free when his brothers have been lynched, his sisters raped, and any leader he cared for has been slaughtered? Marshall (Carl Barnett), wearing Army fatigues, asks himself, “What if I die defending people who oppress me?” His is a flag dance: he strangles himself with the American flag and is buried by other soldiers, who spit on him and kick him, then fold the flag with reverence.
Though most of the second act consists of wide-eyed looks from the three souls who are in awe of Yetunde and scowls from the doubting Jakuta, a fifth soul provides some levity and invention. With self-deprecating humor, Older Jasmine–a busy mother, wife, and student–takes us through her hectic day. Played by the excellent Karon Moore Stewart in the sardonic style of Whoopi Goldberg, Older Jasmine wakes up to “books in my sink to tell me my gallant husband did the dishes last night.” After trying to stay awake in class, cooking dinner, and playing with her children, Older Jasmine tumbles into a bed filled with more books.
The actors who play the young souls perform earnestly, with a conviction of the play’s importance. But under Carroll’s direction they rarely go deeper than the surface. Ireland stands out as the best for her monologues, but all four spend too much time looking around and up at the ceiling to suggest wonder at Yetunde’s presence. As Jakuta, Carroll continually looks around, rarely fixing his eyes anywhere on the stage or in the audience. His performance as the anguished cynic lacks confidence and force. When he yells it’s from the throat, not the lungs; when he’s angry he scrunches up his nose like an irritated child, not a man who’s seen unspeakable cruelty to his race.
Maia, a talented dancer and singer, brings grace and a joyous voice to the role of Yetunde. However, her permanent smile, her constant beatific presence onstage, and her character’s sense of superiority are annoying.
The few moments of insight into modern life in Continuum are too heavily counterpointed by repetitive pieces of advice and wisdom. And the inspiring music–composed by musical director Shawn Wallace, Shepsu Aakhu, George Blaise, Danjuma Gaskin, and “the Ancestors”–seems to call out continually for more dance, but there was only one genuine brief spurt at the end. Perhaps a powerful editor could make Continuum the enlightening cultural tool it was intended to be.