“The Dark Kalamazoo” is such an intriguing title, you can easily understand actress Oni Faida Lampley’s desire to write herself a show around it. The resulting evening, 90 minutes of heartfelt if unexceptional autobiographical theater, is on view at the Greenwich House, framed in a handsome production from the Drama Dept.
The phrase was actually a hurtful nickname Lampley earned when, as a student at Oberlin, she spent a semester abroad studying in West Africa. Lampley was the only black American in a group of 20 eager young things looking to expand their horizons. The kids spent a few months doing preparatory studies in Kalamazoo, Mich., of all unlikely places.
When Lampley finally arrived in Sierra Leone, expecting to find a warm welcome from her ancestral brethren, she was dismayed to find that here, too, she felt alienated — the wary African students denoted her “the dark Kalamazoo”: Not one of them, hardly one of us. Her attempts to reach some common ground with the student community and maintain her emotional equilibrium in an unfamiliar milieu are the focus of the show.
Lampley actually begins her tale in Oklahoma City, where she grew up the daughter of an SBW — a Strong Black Woman, albeit a difficult one — who figures prominently in the show. Her appearance is signaled whenever Lampley strikes an imperious, hieroglyphic pose: one hand held aloft, fingers splayed for the ever-present cigarette, the other down low, languidly clutching a tumbler of Scotch. In letters to her daughter in Africa, her tone veers oddly between hard-won wisdom, motherly warmth and bitter defensiveness.
If Lampley remained dependent on her mother’s wavering emotional support during her months abroad, she rather quickly abandons her allegiance to hometown boyfriend Floyd, a rather sketchily drawn presence. Although lonely at first, and shunned by most of the African women, Lampley soon begins interacting with various African men, most notably a local god with the unlikely name of Rodney, who ultimately proves as emotionally undependable as mama back home.
Lampley, a naturally warm and exuberant presence, narrates the tale with the help of a few basic props — a suitcase, a swatch of brightly colored African cloth (she’s mocked for trying to sport traditional dress) — but her expressive body itself is the most useful. (Sometimes too useful: Director Tom Prewitt would have been wise to rein in an overwrought moment or two.) The attractively spare set designed by Allen Moyer features a stage covered in rocky red earth and a scrim for ghostly projections. Behind the scrim, musician Kevin Campbell can occasionally be seen playing his percussive incidental music on a variety of indigenous African instruments. The lighting by Heather Carson is excellent, helping to add focus to some of the more lively or dramatic moments. The generally dark background suggests Lampley’s solitude on her journey.
There are not, in truth, a lot of universal or profound revelations here, although the story of a young woman’s difficult quest to find a place in a culture for which she feels an innate affinity is certainly touching enough. Lampley’s writing is often earthily funny, always vivid, sometimes a little strained (“The clay road is littered with broken white shells, scattered like chips of teeth crunched beneath the shabby tires of lorries. . .”).
The story loses steam in the late going, as things begin to blur and Lampley meanders through a passage about a bout of malaria and a contretemps with a professor over female circumcision that feels perfunctory. And some viewers may find her continual focus on her search for sexual satisfaction a bit tedious. When she turned to a satisfying bowel movement to symbolize a cathartic emotional climax, this viewer certainly ceased to admire the show’s frank treatment of bodily functions.