The world portrayed in Nick Mwaluko’s Waafrika is one driven by family and tribal ties, adherence to ritual and tradition, and tension between old ways and new ones. Superstition influences behavior. So does the need for secrecy when the truth could mean death.
Fort Lauderdale’s Thinking Cap Theatre has just opened its bold production of Waafrika, a shattering and shocking play centered on the relationship of a lesbian couple in Kenya in 1992. Then-president Daniel arap Moi declared homosexual acts a crime punishable by death, so the danger faced by a village chief’s daughter Awino (Makeba Pace) and her American partner Bobby (Kim Ehly) is grave indeed.
The content of Waafrika and the play’s impassioned interpretation by director Nicole Stodard and her fearless cast are powerful, even overwhelming at times. But the script is not particularly well written, leaving the actors to make more of it (which they generally do) than Mwaluko’s words give them. Waafrika doesn’t begin to touch the brilliance of a play like Lynn Nottage’s set-in-Congo Pulitzer Prize winner Ruined, which opened a far more riveting window into tumultuous times in Africa.
Pace’s Awino, the eldest daughter of Chief Odhiambo (John Archie), is a strong African woman whose loving father has long given her special treatment. She has been educated through secondary school, chosen not to marry, declined the mutilation of female circumcision. Her own mother is dead, but her father’s three other wives — Mama Mugabe (Carey Brianna Hart), Mama Otieno (Renee Elizabeth Turner) and Mama Opio (Stephon Duncan) — have strong, frequently expressed opinions about how Awino should embrace tradition.
She is, however, going in the opposite direction: cutting her hair short, wearing men’s clothing, living for seven erotically fulfilling months in a “crawl” (apartment) with the out-and-proud Bobby. Awino’s lover, a former Peace Corps volunteer, comes from privilege and a thoroughly American mindset. Bobby simply cannot grasp why Awino won’t just turn her back on her father and her tribe to embrace her true identity.
The winsome Ehly and tormented Pace soldier on through the back-and-forth Mwaluko gives Bobby and Awino. They have to whisper at home, lest they fuel more gossip, but then they make love wildly and loudly. Bobby’s going to run off, then she’s going to stay; she wants Awino to come with her, then she wants her to go home to the Chief and safety. Back and forth, back and forth.
Archie conveys the dignity, worry, affection and anger in the Chief’s relationship with Awino. The affectionate bond the Chief has with Hart’s domineering Mama Mugabe provides a sweet, fleeting respite from the brewing crisis over Awino. Hart, playing a woman who is (to western eyes) the villain of the piece, boldly conveys the unquestioning embrace of brutalizing tradition. The play’s artfully staged final scene, involving all the wives and Awino, is excruciating and unbearable.
Thinking Cap, an increasingly significant South Florida theater company, is all about delivering provocative, intellectually and emotionally compelling drama. Though the storytelling in Waafrika is flawed, the story is an important one.