Oni Faida Lampley shoves an almost unbudgeable brown suitcase across the stage to begin her one-person show chronicling a woman’s college-abroad adventures in Africa. At The Dark Kalamazoo’s end, she swoops the huge piece of luggage onto her head like a jug of water from the local stream and strides off, hips swaying. As in much of the charming, 90-minute piece, this physical gesture gives dramatic and emotional shape to the story: In the course of her nine months in Sierra Leone, the student, Vera, lightens her load of expectations about the motherland and of doubts about herself.
Growing up in landlocked Oklahoma City with a mother who exemplified what she calls the SBW—Strong Black Woman—and attending an almost all-white Catholic school, Vera searches for a sense of self among conflicting messages about female power, feminine vulnerability, and being black. She spends her chubby adolescence “reeling between images of white cover girl clichés and Power-to-the-People! Ebony afro-ed sisters on crushed black velvet riding tigers to ecstasy.” At Oberlin, she plunges into Black Studies, learns African dance, and leaps at the chance to study abroad. She joins the required summer prep classes with about 20 white kids at Kalamazoo College and looks forward to being greeted as a long-lost sister, descendant of slaves returning to the homeland whence her people were stolen.
Instead, she’s regarded as thoroughly American, as alien as the blonde kids in the group. The scant recognition paid her blackness comes in the nickname the locals give her: “the Dark Kalamazoo.” The young African women on the Sierra Leone campus are disappointed: “When they heard a black woman was coming, they were expecting Diana Ross, but they got me.” They disdain her for neglecting to iron her clothes or sweep her room. The men take more interest, hoping she’s one of those loose and available Western girls—which turns out not to be so far from the truth. Vera takes attention where she can find it, zeroing in on Rodney, “the prince of Freetown’s talented tenth.” The Dark Kalamazoo acquires a narrative drive much like Sex and the City‘s. Vera’s insights, politics, and growing self-acceptance—her forging of an identity—are described as a function of her sexual exploits. “I wanna be right for an Afrikan man,” she says of Rodney. “He takes my body, my breasts, sides, hips, like a starving man, in whole gulps with the kind of fuss people make over watermelon, swallowing water. Now I can make him feel we are connected—by something ancient that white people can never destroy.” Even her last murky epiphany on the African continent comes from the pick-up of a middle-aged government official who treats her to a lobster dinner and a night in a swanky hotel: in an orgasmic moment, she accepts that she has come to Africa for herself, not as a representative of her family or of all descendants of slaves.
A good dose of irony yanks Lampley’s coming-of-age tale from the quicksand of sentimentality. Still, since the narrator is recalling events some 20 years after they happened, one expects more critical reflection than an aw-shucks, wasn’t-I-naive roll of the eyes. In place of more analytical depth, Lampley—directed by Tom Prewitt—offers her winning presence and precise acting, capturing characters in a few clear gestures. Her SBW mother comes into being as Lampley sweeps her right hand upward, as if wielding a cigarette, the left downward, as if dangling a glass of scotch. Fellow student Jenny is conjured with a flip-flip of her imagined golden locks. Kevin Campbell’s fluid accompaniment from behind a scrim—bass, synthesizer and a wide range of African rhythm instruments—roots Lampley’s story lushly in the imagination. His music provides more than background; it serves as a knowing interlocutor for a young woman searching for herself in the hyphen of African-American.
The music is the show in Call the Children Home, a plodding whore-with-a-heart-of-gold story set in New Orleans in the early 1900s. Though it pulls out one melodramatic cliché after another—the abandoned daughter searching for her mom, the guilty brother trying to avenge his admired sibling, the corrupt city father demanding ever higher bribes, the artists pursuing their crazy dreams, etcetera, etcetera—the play lacks a genuine plot. Events don’t develop or deepen, they just pile on. And every single step in the flat narrative gets a song. Luckily, the New Orleans-style jazz is jaunty and rich and the cast—led by Tamara Tunie and Eugene Fleming—can sell it. Trouble is, there’s nothing to buy.