On Saturday, I immensely enjoyed ushering for the CenterStage‘s production of Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine. This season has been fabulous–with only one exception, The Matchmaker, I’ve seen every show through the magic that is volunteerism, and I’m not quite sure what my favorite’s been. The Kushner musical Caroline, or Change; the infamous Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; or Lynn Nottage’s funny-beautiful Fabulation–all have good cases in their corners…. Fabulation is a contemporary piece riffing on some of the same themes as Caroline; it’s a very Afro-centric play, but it doesn’t speak exclusively to people of color. It suggests that the world we immerse ourselves in creates identity, and that identity can just as easily be re-created–it’s a hopeful play, but a play not without acknowledgement of the pains attending any re-education.
The play’s title alludes to a the German folk tale of Undine, a water nymph that fell in love with a human man, bore his child, and was therefore consigned to mortality on land; however, when she found that he had become unfaithful, she cursed him with wakefulness and returned to the sea. This tale is, of course, the basis for Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid,” butchered in recent memory by Disney. The play doesn’t take up the subplot of the folk tale, Undine’s curse on her erstwhile husband, but it does suggest that Nottage’s Undine–and by extension the many women in the play like her–has somehow exiled herself from her “authentic” identity (or at least, one part of her identity) in her quest to become part of the Black upper-middle class. In the first minutes, we learn that her husband, Herve, has not only left her–in part because she herself drifted away–but also left her with nothing, cleaning out their joint accounts. Undine, rejected by her upwardly-mobile friends, returns to her home in Brooklyn, a past that she figuratively killed by creating a story of her rise in which her family died in a fire. Her grandmother, whom everyone thinks of as diabetic, is actually addicted to heroin, and Undine is pressed into service as a runner–when she gets pinched by the police and sentenced to rehab. She discover’s she’s pregnant, and–now a member of the poor underclass–must navigate the abstruse and illogical bureaucratic system signified by the Social Security Office to get an abortion appointment. By the time she finally comes face to face with a doctor, he informs her that she’s in her third trimester, and an abortion is impossible. In this Job-like fable, Undine is not only routinely stripped of every piece of armor and every bit of stable ground, but she is also forced to confront the part of herself she surgically removed in her own fabulous (the word is deliberate!) rise to fame in the business world.
While we can take issue with the one-dimensional idea that Brooklyn represents a forsaken authenticity and the white PR world of Manhattan represents an illusory fraudulence (literally, as Undine’s Latin husband has cheated not with another woman, but with her money and her idea of him), the play does an excellent job dramatizing the real distance between the two worlds, as well as the way our identity is often bound up with the discourses of each. As Undine falls further and further away from the life she’s grown accustomed to, the life she desires far away from her parents’ Brooklyn walk-up and her humorously heroin-addicted grandmother, the child inflicted upon her by husband Herve becomes a sign of her new life–and the pains attending its birth. The play could easily fall into sentimentalism, but it doesn’t; in part because of the play’s pervasive, sharp-edged humor, and in part becuase of the interesting choice to double Herve and Guy, the former addict Undine meets in her court-mandated therapy and with whom she later falls in step. Nottage avoids sentimentalism, too, by emphasizing the fabulation; the play names itself a fable, and it treats itself as such from start to finish–it is a fable that, like Undine’s brother’s epic poem on Brer Rabbit, has real political significance, but is capable of addressing those politics from the slight remove offered by the stage.
(The other thing that occurs to me, as I’m remembering the play, is Undine’s own affair with her mediocre rap-star client. In the staging, we were clearly to see him as “inauthentic,” a gangster who uses most of his six-figure income to associate himself with the streets; Undine treats him with condescension, a condescension that belies her own attempts to remove herself from her past. I’m not sure what to do with this, especially given the intertext of the water-nymph’s curse. Any ideas?)