Making sense of S. Africa sojourn

THE BALTIMORE SUN

We write about what we don't understand and wish we did.

So nearly every day for the next week, when Kira Lallas walks on stage at the Olney Theatre Center, she is struggling to come to grips with her months in South Africa.

With the man on the Cape Town minibus who believes that Americans have found the cure for AIDS, but won't share it with the rest of the world. With the group of young girls she met who were at first so friendly but suddenly turned aggressive. With her teen-age students, who were more interested in discussing virginity than apartheid.

The engrossing result is Translations of Xhosa, a 90-minute theater piece incorporating music, dance and storytelling; the title refers to the language spoken by the black South Africans with whom Lallas lived.

Underlying the anecdotes is a thread of fear. Lallas seems to have been scared at some point every day that she spent in South Africa.

With her scuffed pink sneakers, long brown curls and soft, pillowy face, the 20-year-old seems to have exuded anxiety, try as hard as she might to disguise it. And the reactions that her nervousness elicited were predictable, from bullying and intimidation by gang members to nurturing by the woman who nicknamed Lallas "Zandi," an African word that translates loosely as "daughter."

In a program note, Lallas writes: "Before I told these stories in playwriting class, I had told no one. And if I didn't tell them, didn't write them, didn't relive them, they would have eaten me."

But nothing truly terrible seems to have happened to Lallas during her sojourn - at least, nothing the script tells us about. At worst, the script suggests, she may have been robbed. Nonetheless, the experience clearly shook, and shocked, her profoundly.

Translations of Xhosa won a top prize at the Kennedy Center's American Theater Festival 2003. The two-week run at Olney is Lallas' first professional production, and the people she describes are rendered more eloquent by Scotty Conant's drumming, which serves as a kind of psychic pulse to this land that's unknowable to Westerners.

The stage is bare except for a few objects - a small crate, a short staircase, several rubber tires. The latter become everything from Zandi's luggage to the bed she sleeps upon. They also function on a more symbolic level as wheels that move things: the minibuses, the plane that brought Zandi home from Africa and the narrator herself.

Perhaps no one could tell Zandi's story better than Lallas, but her larger talent seems to be as a writer. The most formidable performer in the show is Uzo Aduba, who sings, dances and portrays many of the neighbors whom Zandi meets over the course of one day.

Aduba is an extraordinary mimic, creating characters with a shift of a shoulder or a flick of a finger, going from a giggly girl wallowing luxuriously in a few extra moments of sleep to a coldly contemptuous minibus driver. Every gesture Aduba makes is fierce, precise and committed.

Lallas is a young playwright, and there are times when her inexperience is apparent. We could do with a bit more explication as to how she came to Africa, how long she remained there, and whether she was left entirely to her own devices, as the script implies.

Perhaps it makes sense in the world of this particular play to have Zandi talk to her ovaries, because one of the themes in Translations of Xhosa is the narrator's inability to menstruate, and how this retards her emotional growth. But Lallas would be wise to avoid this technique of talking to her body parts in future works. The Vagina Monologues notwithstanding, such conversations quickly become precious. ("Hello, Mr. Adam's Apple, how are you today?")

It may take years for Lallas to fully grasp either her craft or her experiences in South Africa. But the time spent traveling can be the most rewarding part of the trip - for her and for us.

Theater

What: Translations of Xhosa

Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; through Aug. 24.

Tickets: $10

Call: 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org

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