Living Room in Africa
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 19, 2006
The catastrophic impact of the AIDS epidemic in Africa is such a compelling social issue that I am loath to be anything other than heartily supportive of a work of theatre whose aim is to call attention to this massive tragedy. But Bathsheba Doran's play Living Room in Africa, if noble in its intent, makes such a weak case for the cause that it can only be viewed as a disappointment.
The problem is the premise. Doran wants us to believe that a large nonprofit organization is constructing an art gallery in a remote section of an (unidentifed) AIDS-ravaged nation in Southeast Africa. Now, the point the playwright is going for here is obvious: the so-called "First World" is so oblivious to the suffering in this African country that not only are they NOT providing assistance, medical care, etc., but they are cynically plopping a completely useless artifact in the middle of the country instead.
Sorry, but I don't buy it: America and other rich countries may be guilty of neglect, but they're not known for financial follies of this magnitude. Doran is trying too hard to indict the monied parts of the world, and she doesn't have to: the facts are so brutally horrific that they don't require the least bit of exaggeration. Instead of engaging me in an honest expose of the inherent sickness of our culture, she's bludgeoning me with a fanciful whopper.
Later in the play, Doran introduces us to a truly ugly American, a wealthy capitalist who takes no pains to hide his contempt for any artistic or intellectual pursuit; a man who talks proudly about how much he likes eating rare animals and shooting endangered lions. Meanwhile, the African cook is struggling to keep her remaining two children alive (having already lost two to AIDS) and the upwardly mobile African engineer learns the truth about how his wife contracted the disease.
For the record, I should quickly summarize the plot: an English couple, Edward and Marie, have moved to Africa because Edward is overseeing the construction of the aforementioned art gallery (Edward is a curator; why he, and not someone who is actually qualified to build a gallery, would be given this job is yet another of Doran's improbable plot points). Marie is a professional writer. It's not clear whether the two are married. It is clear that their sex life is on the wane, and that Marie had a severe bout of depression some years ago that still strains their relationship. (All of this stuff turns out to be a red herring, by the way, as far as the progress of the story goes.)
When Marie takes a trip to the impoverished village where their cook, Nsugo, lives, she undergoes a complete transformation: her only interest now is to serve the weak and ill Africans. When two of the workers on the gallery construction site become sick with AIDS, the project is halted (apparently no replacements can be found?) and Edward makes plans to leave Africa. But the newly enlightened Marie wants to stay here and work. Eventually Nsugo convinces her that she can make a greater contribution by writing about what she has seen, and so she and Edward are able to depart, guilt-free, for Paris.
Truly appalling statistics are wedged into the script, and the awareness that the West has raped Africa, then and now, pervades the piece. But ultimately, the important information that Doran wants to impart to her audience is seriously undermined by the clumsiness and implausibility of her play.
The production by Edge Theater is physically flawless, with producer David Korins providing one of his trademark expert set designs and artistic director Carolyn Cantor turning in an effective staging. The actors' work is uneven: Maduka Steady and especially Marsha Stephanie Blake do fine work as the Africans, and Guy Boyd is spot-on as the gluttonous American visitor. Rob Campbell, Ana Reeder, and Michael Chernus (as Edward, Marie, and Mark, Marie's brother, respectively) seem to be struggling with their accents and with making these pasty-faced whiners into interesting people.