One of the things that Daniel arap Moi did during his 24 years as President of Kenya was to outlaw homosexuality. Calling it "un-African," he made it a capital crime. Things are better, but only by degree, for sexual minorities in Kenya (you can read more here). Now, why I am bringing this up? Because I have just seen Waafrika, Nanna Mwaluko's invaluable and informative new play about a Kenyan woman who falls in love with an American woman. I'll wager that the vast majority of people reading this are ignorant of the repressive treatment of gays and lesbians in this African nation. That's why my job is so interesting: theatre teaches me, enlarges me—just about every single day.
In Waafrika, Awino, the favorite daughter of a local tribal chief named Odhiambo, has left her home and gone to live with Bobby, a former Peace Corps volunteer who has decided to stay on in Kenya. Bobby is an out, and outspoken, lesbian; she wants Awino to embrace her new-found sexual identity with vigor and pride. But Awino knows that while Bobby is buffered from the facts of African life by her American sense of privilege, such a step is fraught with peril. Homosexuality is punishable by the death penalty (and indeed, as the play begins we hear news broadcasts on a radio about two young men who have been arrested for kissing in public and now face possible execution).
What's special about Waafrika is that Mwaluko is so in touch with African culture that we genuinely assimilate pieces of it by the time the play is over. Certainly aspects of the Kenyans relationships with nature and with ancestors feel alien to an American sensibility; but Mwaluko plumbs deeply enough to give us real insight into the mindsets of Odhiambo, Awino, and the other African characters in this play. So when we hear that some of the villagers are starting to believe that Bobby and Awino's taboo love is the cause of a seven-month-long famine, we don't immediately reject this is as backward mumbo-jumbo. Indeed, Mwaluko gives us a splendid character—Odhiambo's first wife—to articulate many of the beliefs of this society, helping us to appreciate and begin to understand them. For this, if no other reason, Waafrika stands as an important cultural artifact because it does this so effectively.
Just as significant is the exploration of ritual female circumcision that is incorporated into the plot. It will be hard to think impassively about this issue after the startlingly frank treatment that Mwaluko gives it here.
And of course there's also a love story—two of them, really: one between the two women and another between Awino and her father (and, by extension, her people). Mwaluko is perhaps more proficient writing about substantive issues than emotional ones—these parts of Waafrika feel at once overwritten and undernourished, as if Mwaluko is reticent to bare the souls of the characters involved. But the play nevertheless balances all of its complicated components with sufficient skill to keep us entirely riveted throughout, and to become significantly invested in all of them.
Director Stacy Waring's production is splendid, particularly given the bare-bones festival environment. The play begins and ends with African rituals; the opening features thrilling drumming (by Adrain Washington) that accompanies a mimed scene depicting Awino's transformation from traditional Kenyan values to a realization of her true nature as a lesbian woman—it's terrific. The cast is fine: Jennifer J. Joseph as the Chief's first wife is especially memorable, while Ahmat Jallo as Odhiambo and Zainab Jah as Awino are also outstanding.
Mwaluko isn't afraid to suggest that Americans are imperfect: his characterization of Bobby is wonderfully flawed, helping us to refocus on the challenges of this foreign culture with a less subjective vision. This is good for us. More plays are promised about the African and African American experience; I will look forward to them all.