The choices in “On the Way to Timbuktu,” a solo show written and performed by Petronia Paley, are really no choices at all. No matter how Selene, the lone character, tries to define herself, her identity betrays her. And that’s the flinty premise of the show: No matter how easy it seems, “being yourself” may be impossible.
In the most literal sense, the play stages the consequences of a single moment. When we meet Selene, an African-American professor, she has just witnessed an event that signals the end of both her marriage and her affair with a student. Her fight to assert her power through her titles — academic, rebel, lover, bitch — has failed, and she has utterly lost control.
But the play is never that straightforward. Taking a cue from Adrienne Kennedy — who often stages the psychic collapse of brilliant black women — Paley puts us inside Selene’s mind, where the character tries to avoid the impact of what has just happened.
Selene’s thoughts are essentially delivered as performance art. She stands on a simple platform, surrounded by dirt and candles, telling stories of her past. Each segment is accompanied by suggestive projections — a blurred map, for instance, when she visits Africa, or the words of a Shakespearean sonnet, warped into odd shapes — and composer-musician Min Xiao-Fin sits to her left, accompanying everything with string music.
In lesser hands, the effect could be pretentious, but Paley’s discipline gives the show heft. Standing statue-still, eyes glittering with focus, she has the authority of a classical orator, and she speaks with such crisp, clear enunciation that every word sounds meaningful. Her presence is too commanding, too elegant for simple realism, so the symbolic images are justified.
Plus, most design elements actually clarify meaning. When Selene remembers a teenage affair with an older man, we see a shadowy figure projected behind her. Large and ominous, the image explains the power this man has over her.
And Paley’s script supports this weightiness. She uses each of Selene’s anecdotes to suggest a signpost that a woman might use to define herself — her ethnicity, her sexuality, her relationship to her mother, her intelligence and education — and then ends each story with disappointment.
Taken separately, these would be interesting tales, but Paley shows us their cumulative effect. Phrases and details keep reappearing — and Selene grows more and more distraught — until we see exactly how a lifetime of small defeats has left her unglued. Attempts at happiness keep failing her until she has nowhere left to turn.
Only the conclusion and an unnecessary opening monologue play like intellectual posturing. Otherwise, Paley brings captivating energy to her ideas about sex, race and culture. Her artistic imagination and depth of thought make her a playwright who deserves attention.