You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

On the Way to Timbuktu

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.

With:
Selene Slater-Bernaud - Petronia Paley

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.

On the Way to Timbuktu

Ensemble Studio Theater; 74 seats; $18 top

Production: An Ensemble Studio Theater presentation of a play in one act by Petronia Paley. Directed by Talvin Wilks.

Creative: Sets and lighting, Maruti Evans; costumes, Suzanne Chesney; original music, Min Xiao-Fin; sound, James Whalen; projections and video, Maya Ciarrocchi; production stage manager, Jennifer Conley Darling. Opened, reviewed Dec. 8, 2007. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.

Cast: Selene Slater-Bernaud - Petronia Paley

More Legit

  • Watch Tom Hanks Vamp on Stage

    Watch Tom Hanks Vamp on Stage to Calm His 'Henry IV' Audience

    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 […]

  • Donald Trump, Robert De Niro

    Trump Punches Back at Robert De Niro: 'A Very Low IQ Individual'

    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 […]

  • Matt Bomer Andrew Rannells

    Stagecraft Podcast: Matt Bomer, Andrew Rannells on Broadway's 'Boys in the Band'

    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 […]

  • Bruce Springsteen72nd Annual Tony Awards, Show,

    Tony Awards: Everything You Didn't See on TV

    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 […]

  • Tina Fey72nd Annual Tony Awards, Show,

    Tony Awards: The Night’s Biggest Snubs and Surprises

    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 […]

  • Amy Schumer introduces a performance by

    Tony Awards: Amy Schumer Calls 'My Fair Lady's' Henry Higgins a Mansplainer

    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 […]

  • Robert De Niro gestures while introducing

    Robert De Niro Says 'F--- Trump' at Tony Awards, Gets Standing Ovation

    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 […]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content