The "gift" in Saul Bellow's novel Humboldt's Gift is a treatment for a movie about a writer who travels to someplace remote, maybe Africa, with his mistress. He has a great time, and writes a stunning book about the trip. But because he's married, he can't publish the book -- it would hurt his wife. Attempting to provide himself with a pretense for writing his book, he takes his wife on the same trip, but this time suffers miserably.
Tanya Shaffer's one-woman show about her boat ride up the Niger River to Timbuktu, Let My Enemy Live Long!, could have gone either way: It might've been as interesting as the writer's book, or as ridiculous as the farce of his second voyage. When Shaffer comes onstage, wearing her backpack and traveling hat, singing an African melody, sitting to write down whatever she's seeing -- eyes wide with wonder -- you start to worry whether the show will be a narcissistic rehash of events that had meaning only for her. But Shaffer is a talented actor aware of her material's pitfalls, and Let My Enemy Live Long! turns out to be a well-crafted and colorful story of a White Girl encountering Africa.
Shaffer starts in a crammed boat on the Niger, with a blustery guide called Toure, who used to smuggle drugs. Almost everyone on the boat is Islamic and kneels toward Mecca five times a day. The exceptions are a Christian convert named YaYa, and Tanya herself. A conversation she has, through Toure, with a deaf-mute who tries to convince her that God abides, whether she believes or not, is effective and simple: "Tell him I can't believe," she says. Toure studies the man's sign language. "He says, 'You win.' "
Soon enough the boat sinks, and everything goes to hell. Tanya tries to save her journal, and almost drowns. She takes a canoe with Toure and YaYa; the two men can't stand each other. They stop in a village where Tanya meets a black American woman from Los Angeles, and they don't get along. "If she thinks you are her enemy," says Toure, "then she should be very nice to you. In my country, we say: Let my enemy live long, so that he can see what will become of me."
These undercutting doses of humor, along with Shaffer's talent for mimicking voices not her own, are what make Let My Enemy Live Long! succeed. The live African drumming and string music are also excellent. Shaffer's story doesn't move forward as urgently as it could, but she's done a good job of sticking to the essentials. The crowded boat at the beginning makes her feel "like Jonah in the belly of the whale." It's a line that sets expectations for a Transformative Experience a little higher than she quite reaches -- the ending, to me, is predictable -- but at least she hones her material well enough to make one woman's colorful photo album interesting to everyone else.
-- Michael Scott Moore
Jitney, the Sitcom
Jitney. By August Wilson. Directed by Stanley Williams. Starring W. Gene Mabrey, Donald Lacy, David Lee Thomason, Charles Branklyn, and S.E. Townsend. At the Lorraine Hansberry Theater, 620 Sutter (at Mason), through Nov. 22. Call 621-7797.
August Wilson has taken advantage of his place as a playwright at the end of the 20th century to write a grand, flawed cycle of plays about the 20th century, and the history of African-Americans in it. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, etc. have put slices of black American life onstage, one decade at a time. Jitney is his latest play and takes place in the '70s. Or, if you like, it's his earliest play, written in the '70s, and staged in '82, then put on ice and rewritten in the context of Wilson's cycle. It still feels like an overlong '70s sitcom, though, with sharp dialogue and lively characters, but no deep or resounding reward.
"Jitney" cabs were gypsy cabs that covered black parts of the city the licensed cab drivers avoided. This show is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where a lot of Wilson's plays take place, but the set could be the run-down interior of any hop-along business on any city street. The dirty window says "CAR SERVICE" in arched letters. The furniture's torn; the old dial phone takes dimes. I happen to like this kind of remorseless realism. Patrick Toebe's set evokes the glaring everydayness of the urban '70s nicely.
But the story shows too much everyday chaos, and not enough of a shaping hand: It revolves around Becker, the responsible jitney station boss, and his irresponsible son, Booster, who's just gotten out of jail. It also follows Youngblood, who's trying to buy a house; Rena, his girlfriend and the mother of his baby; Turnbo, a crotchety old driver who sticks his nose in everyone else's "bizness" -- and gets in a fight with Youngblood; and Fielding, who drinks too much. The intertwining stories keep things active onstage, but somehow don't go anywhere; the threads tangle into a Gordian knot that, rather than being unraveled, in the end gets cut, Alexander-style, by a sudden improbable death.
Of all the emotional threads, it's Becker's relationship with his son that has the most grit and weight. W. Gene Mabrey does an excellent job as Becker, seeming haggard but proud of the jitney station he runs; his speeches about honor are answered by his son with speeches about taking "any kind of shit they throw yo' way." But his son is played with too much swaggering earnestness by Donald Lacy, so the drama between father and son, which is also the drama of growing up black in America, is not as taut or believable as it should be. The rest of the cast can be stiff in the low moments. But the high noise of some of the comic scenes is great -- Charles Branklyn is especially good as Turnbo -- and Wilson's talent for street dialogue makes Jitney better, at least, than a night in front of the television.
-- Michael Scott Moore