ARCHIVE: Playing the Fula, at Two River


Actor and playwright Carlyle Brown is THE FULA FROM AMERICA, in a one-man show that’s also a one-weekend show at Two River Theater. (photos courtesy of Alabama Shakespeare Festival)

(First published on Red Bank oRBit February 25, 2010)

We deal with a lot of hyphens in this business. Actor-comedian, for one. Singer-songwriter, for another. Producer-director, painter-photographer, dancer-puppeteer — as we recall we even interviewed a jazz pianist-oncologist-exotic frog expert at one point.

Of course, add “American” after the hyphen and you’ve got yourself a readymade identity crisis. Then slip that deceptively simple dash between “African” and “American” and you can step back and watch the words, the poetry, the images, the music flow out from generations of creative people who have wrestled with the question, how much of me is African and how much is American?

In his play The Fula from America, actor-playwright-director-impresario Carlyle Brown takes on just that question, via a chronicle of an early 1980s solo trip that the author took through the West African nations of Senegal, Mali, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leone. The one man show comes to Red Bank’s Two River Theater this weekend, for three public performances on Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon (following a school-show matinee on Friday morning).

It’s the latest in a series of solo theatrical pieces at Two River (a series that began back in November with the one-woman trifecta Tea for Three), and it’s a rare chance for local audiences to witness the work of a stage veteran whose Minneapolis-based troupe Carlyle Brown & Company has originated and developed such acclaimed works as The Masks of OthelloPure ConfidenceThe Little Tommy Parker Celebrated Minstrel Show and The African Company presents Richard III — a multi-layered riff on Shakespeare’s historical tragedy that Brown tells us “doesn’t really belong to me anymore.”

What does belong indisputably to Carlyle Brown is his own story of a search for identity that takes him “from deep in the bush to the corridors of the African elite, (where) he discovers friendship, generosity, poverty, wondrous beauty and civil war.”  First staged in 2002, it’s a work that features the author’s portrayals of the real-life characters he met in his travels, as well as his often surprising reactions to the everyday events and the history  that swirled around him.

The Fula from America goes up inside the Two River building’s “black box” Marion Huber Theater (while Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park continues in the mainstage Rechnitz Theater), with tickets ($20) reservable right here — and an interview with Carlyle Brown right around the flip of a paperless page.

Fula-@ASF-001RED BANK ORBIT: Lately I’ve been using “snow talk” as an icebreaker to get the conversation going with people I interview, but there’s just no fun in talking about snow with someone from Minnesota. Sixteen inches in Red Bank just isn’t gonna impress.

CARLYLE BROWN: You guys back east have actually gotten hit with a lot more snow lately, and we sympathize with you, we do. I’ve been to Red Bank before, by the way; I’ve met Aaron Posner and I’ve been to the Two River Theater, which is a beautiful building.

Well then, first question has to home in on the title THE FULA FROM AMERICA, and where that comes from…

A Fula of course is one of the ethnic group, the pastoral Muslim group that’s pervasive throughout western Africa. Apparently I look like one, so that became my nickname.

This is back during your actual travels in Africa, which were several years prior to the play’s premiere. Did it take that long to complete the play, or did you maybe not intend for your experiences to be a theatrical piece at first? What finally got things rolling on the play in its present form?  

I made that trip in 1981, but I wrote the play almost twenty years after it happened, in response to 9-11. At that time, the TV was full of these talking-head white commentators, talking about what it means to be an American. I wrote it to keep from being angry.

I got hold of some photos of you doing the play at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and I know you’ve taken this show out on the road in various places — how far afield have you traveled with it?

It was first produced in 2002 in Minneapolis, and it’s been done in a number of other places since — San Francisco, Atlanta, upstate New York — Jesus, quite a few.

Something that caught my eye in the press release is how you “navigate the hyphen in African-American.” Wondering how that hyphen looks to you most of the time — is it a sturdy walkway between worlds? A shaky rope bridge over a canyon?

The hyphen is an irony. I came of age in the 60s, and I saw the end of colonialism as having a parallel synchronicity with the Civil Rights movement here — this is before things over there went to hell in a handbasket, with some of the butchers who came along later. One of the things I wanted to do on the trip was to explore why and how did this happen.

The trip itself was a whirlwind. I was dealing day to day with being this fish out of water, and one of the more surprising discoveries made during this trip had to with my own reactions; just how American my reactions were…how, for example, I was conditioned to live on ‘American time,’ as opposed to ‘African time.’ We’ve heard of ‘colored people time,’ and over there in Africa they take that to the extreme.

As an American, I could go anywhere in the world that I want, and I found that I had a bit of an Ugly American attitude; a sense of entitlement and privilege — even though a lot of those things were denied to me back in America. So that was the contradiction, the irony; the whole existential issue with being an African-American. You have to face the fact that you are who you are.

Now I understand also that you used real names of real people throughout the script; that these are pretty much all situations and experiences that are conveyed to the best of your recollection.

I tried to be true to the people I met, as much as possible. During the course of traveling with this play I’d run into people who knew one of the characters in the play. A while back I met a young man from Sierra Leone — of course, you know the situation there has been horrible — and he told me about a chief of police in Freetown, a man who had helped me get out of the country when things started getting rough — he told me that the chief had been executed because of his pro-democracy leanings.

When I heard about this, I was of course very upset, and this young man had his arms around me, comforting me. I was thinking to myself, what’s HE comforting ME for? He’s the one who comes from Sierra Leone!

Looking at that hyphen as a two-way street, how much has African-American culture, or just American culture in general, put its stamp upon African life?

I’m proud of myself as being an African-American, but as much talk as there’s been about what it means to be American, the word ‘African’ itself is a misnomer, since we’re speaking about such an enormously diverse spectrum of people.

This disparate group of people was brought here to serve the building of the greatest democracy in the world, only to be denied the practice of their culture, so, they created a culture of their own. And if you take the Africanisms out of what we consider American culture, you wouldn’t have much. Bees make honey, spiders make webs, people make culture…it’s just what we do.

Sometimes in order to get folks’ attention we have to have that culture served up in 3-D IMAX. So how does live theater compete with the latest slick generation of diversion out there — or not even having to go out, since there’s so much slick diversion available in the home?

We’re not that evolved that we’ve lost our need for stories. But it’s just that, with everyone so interested in content, I don’t think theater’s been embracing it in the most explicit way. And the audience has to do a little work — an actor on a stage, well, they’re two people; themselves, and a different person at the same time.

So you have to use your imagination. It’s good for you; gets the endorphins flowing. But if you see a bad play? It’s not like if you see a bad movie or a bad TV show — you don’t swear off going to the movies forever. But someone who sees bad Shakespeare? They’re never going to the theater again.

Is part of the trick to make your story as universal as possible — to imbed something in your play, no matter how personal or specific to your experience that it is — something that just about everyone in the audience can relate to?

That’s another one of those ironies. I never think in terms of anything I’m doing as being a universal play. It has to be specific to my life somehow. You have to be God to be universal, after all. But when I meet my audiences after doing this play, all these people, from all sorts of backgrounds, want to tell me their stories.

I’ll have someone from a Russian Jewish family telling me about how they journeyed to Kiev to get in touch with their identity, the roots of the family tree that had been severed at some point. And they’d visit this little village, where everyone looked like their Aunt Mabel! So really, while Fula has evolved, it’s the relationship with the audience that’s clarified over time.

Would you say that THE FULA FROM AMERICA does carry an underlying theme of You Can’t Go Home Again?

At the end of the day, the idea of being an African-American is just that — more of an idea than a biological reality. T.S. Eliot said, ‘We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.’

The conclusion is that you can’t go home again — you can use it as sustenance, but you have to face the fact that you are where you are.