"Gol-lee!" exclaims the disappointed Vera after an encounter with a dorm night porter in Freetown, Sierra Leone. "He thinks I'm an American!" Vera--who now goes by the name Oni Faida Lampley and is performing her one-woman show "The Dark Kalamazoo" at Woolly Mammoth--has reason for chagrin: She is the only black student in her college's African exchange program, and it's the ultimate insult to be lumped in with the other--white--kids.
Vera is having a welcome-to-the-real-world experience, courtesy of the citizens of Freetown. Though even before she got there she realized her attitude toward Africa was "immature," she's not quite prepared for the indifference to her presence that the Africans exhibit.
The girls in particular sneer at this privileged American princess who has come to bond with "her" people. At one particularly devastating moment, an old woman tells her, "Go back to play with the white folks!" It can't get much more humiliating than that for a young black American in the early '70s.
Lampley is inquiring and analytical, and her accounts of her experiences are always shrewdly observed. Simply as a "this was my trip to Africa" story, the evening is intriguing. But beneath the tale of Vera's coming-of-age about the Motherland, another play is squirming to emerge, a play about Vera and her actual mother that has implications of a more interesting drama.
When the loose-limbed Lampley becomes Vera's/her mother, her body goes tense and seems to lengthen. Mom always appears with a glass of scotch in one hand and a cigarette in the other, and she's always a heroine: a "strong black woman," or "SBW," as her intimidated daughter puts it. On the one hand, this mother is supportive and encouraging; on the other, she often goes into what Vera calls "the 'Medea' lullaby": "I tried to abort you, Baby, but you stuck--so you were made for happy!"
Pretty early in the play, the audience realizes that Vera, with her search for acceptance, especially from other women, is looking for a mother in Mother Africa. Raised a Roman Catholic and sent to almost-all-white schools, Vera needs not only to define herself as different from her mother but also to define her blackness as an alternative to her mother's proud and gloomy vision of the SBW.
This, not Vera's naive and often amusing culture shock, is the real substance of "The Dark Kalamazoo," but as the script stands now, it hardly emerges. Lampley is such a gifted writer and storyteller that the evening is never dull, but a great deal of it is beside the point--lovely observations that have a lot to do with Lampley's almost journalistic eye but not much with Vera's dramatic journey.
The charm of "The Dark Kalamazoo" comes from Lampley's smart, rueful, poetic voice. The trees on the hills above the school in Africa are "an orchard of bats." "So Sojourner knew the truth," she mumbles, considering her inadequacies as an SBW, "but did anyone ever ask her to dance?" When she's the first student to come down with malaria, Vera tries to look on the bright side: "Something African had finally happened to me!"
This is essentially a low-key, conversational work, but under director/dramaturge Lynn M. Thomson, it's been produced at Woolly like a little opera, with a gorgeous slate- and-bronze-colored set by Lewis Folden and a vibrant score and musical accompaniment by the African music specialist Kevin Campbell. Their work is lovely, but it weighs down the script's lightly unpretentious narrative and destroys its sense of intimacy.
Neither Lampley the writer nor Lampley the performer needs this kind of upholstering. The clean, unadorned lines of her stories and style are enough.
The Dark Kalamazoo, written and performed by Oni Faida Lampley. Director and dramaturge, Lynn M. Thomson. Lights, Lisa Ogonowski. Costumes, Reggie Ray. At Woolly Mammoth Theatre through Dec. 12. Call Protix at 703-218-6500.