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The African Queen 

Shaffer in Let My Enemy Live Long!

Wednesday, May 3 2000
In the mid-'90s, Tanya Shaffer went to Africa. In '98, she did a show about it. In '99 she revived the show at the Eureka, and this year she's brought the same play to an even larger stage as part of the Berkeley Rep's parallel season. Relics from the original trip hang on the lobby wall at the Rep -- Shaffer's dress, her worn Tevas -- along with photographs of dark-skinned natives and crowded boats very much like the one that carried her up the Niger (and sank). The Berkeley Rep always mounts a display in the lobby to complement whatever's on its stage, but there's something weird about the way this autobiographical show has led to an exhibit of actual items from Shaffer's actual trip. "You'd think she was Margaret Mead," said my companion.

This sense of self-showcasing also runs through the play. After a long and impressive introduction on African drums and strings by Baba Duru Demetrius, Shaffer walks onto a phony desert-rock set in backpack and straw hat, wide-eyed in wonder. True, she immediately undercuts the wide-eyed goofiness with a story about disillusionment over the prospect of losing herself in volunteer work in a foreign land ("Coming to Africa was my escape. Where do you go to escape your escape?") but an undercurrent of gee-whizness never goes away.

What saves the show is Shaffer's talent for evoking other people. Tanya, the character, escapes her African escape by traveling up the Niger on a crowded boat to the city of Timbuktu. She wants to see the Real Africa, meaning the countryside and towns and modes of transportation of ordinary Africans. The experience is rather self-consciously like Jonah in the belly of the whale -- Tanya goes in, meets some cool people, almost dies, and comes out again, transformed.

First she meets Touré, a large, expansive African with a heavy accent who insists on being her friend. He looks after Tanya but also wants help getting to the States. "You can vouch for my charactah," he says in a voice that sounds like Spalding Gray's deep-throated rendition of Athol Fugard in Swimming to Cambodia. Touré does become a good friend as well as a rival to the other man Tanya meets -- a gentle Christian convert from Is- lam named Ya-Ya -- and Shaffer renders both of them with well-observed gestures and tones.

The attention of two men and the mere fact of being white on an overcrowded pinasse makes Tanya feel like a beauty queen. She writes in her journal, waves to children on the riverbank who flock to look at her strangely colored skin; she feels on top of the world (and actually sings a fragment of the Carpenters' folk song, in a cheesy scene). Then the boat sinks. The scene shifts to an eerily blue-lit underwater world, in which Tanya tries, in slow motion, to recover her notebook from the sinking pinasse. Good choreography (by Shakiri) and elegant lighting (by Richard Olmstead) help make Tanya's near-death experience suspenseful and even hypnotic; so does Demetrius' ambient string and percussion score. Tanya rescues her journal but finds out later that another friend from the boat -- an unnamed deaf-mute, cheerful and devoutly Muslim, who's intrigued her with his sign-language conversation about God -- has drowned.

The whole point of Enemy, in spite of its exoticism, is to reflect back on life in these United States. The strongest part of the script is the way it connects race-and-class transcendence to religious awakening, rather than oversimplified platitudes about being nice to each other. After the deaf-mute dies, and Tanya suffers a harrowing bout of grief and self-flagellation, she meets a black woman from L.A. in a riverbank village. She tries to be nice, but the woman won't have it. She hates wide-eyed, liberal American whites. "American culture," she says. "I don't think there is any such animal."

The experience hardens Tanya, changes her, and the scene is crucial. "If she thinks you are her enemy," says Touré, quoting an African proverb, "she must be very kind to you, and wish you long life." The idea is that if your enemy lives long, he'll see how successful you've become. Shaffer uses the proverb to slip wittily into a weightier point about religion and what we call brotherhood; unfortunately, the portrait of the L.A. woman isn't sharp. Shaffer suggests but doesn't quite render the "enemy's" burnt-out and cynical tone.

Overall, though, it's a good show. The charm of Enemy is that Shaffer knows just where her weaknesses are -- rooted, like everyone's, in self-showcasing -- but the irony of the whole thing is that she can't always transcend them.


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