"The Dark Kalamazoo"

Woolly Mammoth Theatre

Through Dec. 12

Tickets: 703/218-6500

While Oni Faida Lampley recounts the funny and thoughtful tale of her trip to Africa as the only black member of a college group, Kevin Campbell matches her story in music.

The veteran local composer and musician stands in the shadows, surrounded by an upright bass, an assortment of drums and gourds and a balaphone. As Lampley knits together her experiences as a child, as a young African American woman seeking her identity in the not-terribly-welcoming motherland and as a wife and mother, Campbell gently shades her words. There's a shekere shake here, a jazz riff there, a deep rumble of drums. From the start, Campbell says, the music was seen as an integral element in Lampley's narrative.

African culture, he says, "is not a culture of exclusion. This is not just background music."

Campbell, a longtime specialist in African music, wrote the score at the request of Lampley and director Lynn Thomson. He left room for improvisation, to reflect "the nuance and spontaneity that's common in African art."

"One of my favorite moments is when she arrives in Africa and I play a sangban drum, and there are also the sounds of the airport and taxicabs," Campbell says. "You get a distinct sense of the African sensibility, but it's subtle. It's a clash of different events."

Campbell, himself a traveler to Africa, is well aware of the complexities of journeying to the continent that Lampley faced -- the excitement of arrival followed by inevitable disappointments and struggles with the culture -- and endeavored to layer them into his music.

"If you're going there to discover yourself, you're faced with the dilemma of focusing on yourself but also taking in all the different levels of Africa," he says. "It's a real division in the spirit."

CAPTION: While Oni Faida Lampley tells her story, musician Kevin Campbell, right, adds texture to the tale.