News & Articles

Guilt Trip

by Bruce Norris

February 13 The Unmentionables is set in a fictitious “third-world” country in western equatorial Africa and concerns a disparate group of white Americans whose simplistic notions of themselves are tested when they become more deeply involved with the local population than they had intended. And sitting in my lovely, comfortable, little apartment in Brooklyn, bent over my tiny computer, reading the newspaper every morning and drinking iced tea, I had concluded that it was my perfect right as someone who makes up stories for a living to create a fictional story which took part in another part of the world, a real part in which I had never set foot and in which very real, which is to say non-fictitious, people, lived. Of course, this is what writers do all the time. But, at a time in which international sensitivities (justified or not) about how we Americans characterize the rest of the world are easily inflamed… Well, you know, I got to thinking. February 14 Packing. Panicking. Took my malaria pills. Sprayed clothes with mosquito repellent. I leave from JFK at eleven p.m., and by eight o’clock tomorrow night I land in Cotonou, Benin. If all goes well – and I think we all suspect, in fact hope that it won’t – I should at that point be in my bed at the Hotel du Lac, east of downtown Cotonou, sound asleep. Benin, I’ve been told, is a perfectly lovely country, with none of the violent political upheaval of Ivory Coast (to the West) or the craziness of Nigeria (to the East). But perhaps I ought to mention at this point that, in Benin, they speak French. And I don’t speak French. Which could be a problem. February 18 One of the strangest and most dislocating things here is television. I sit in my room watching coverage of Dick Cheney’s shotgun story or the rising fortunes of some European company and wonder, “Is this what the Beninese see on TV? There is, to be fair, a Benin channel. But mostly it is reruns of The Gilmore Girls dubbed in French or (seriously) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with Arabic subtitles. The sneaky thought “no wonder people hate us” creeps into your head. Oddest of all was a BBC documentary all about the history of Shaw’s play Pygmalion and the musical My Fair Lady with various people offering their opinions on the genius of a play in which a poor street vendor is turned into a quasi-duchess. I sat there watching this thinking of the hundreds of “guttersnipes” (Shaw’s word) that I had walked past that afternoon with no Professor Higgins (myself included) to offer them “lots of chocolates for me to eat”. Loverly, indeed. February 19 Some parts you can’t make up. So it turns out that, little did I know, I have been in Benin in the middle of the International Beninese Theatre Festival (!!??!!); or FITHEB. I saw a poster one day and no one at the hotel knew anything about it and finally after asking around a woman at a bookstore directed me to the CCF (Centre Cuturel Français) where I found out that last night’s performance, and this is possibly TOO weird, was RICHARD III, that’s right (Maintenant c’est l’hiver du nos discontent…. etc.), performed in French with an entirely West African cast (and one hambone of a white Swiss guy), outdoors, in modern-dress with a kind of “gangster” theme, accompanied by a live musician playing traditional instruments. I managed, basically through sign language, to get a ticket. Remarkable, in a way – and let’s not get TOO misty here – to see how a play travels through huge distances of space and time. I can’t say it was the absolute best theatre I have ever seen, but absolutely the most interesting theatre story. And now I can write off my trip on next year’s taxes. February 20 I was led into a small shed to the side and introduced to a muscular man who was called the “son of the king”. I was already somewhat dubious and after some chanting and murmuring and questioning me as to what I wanted (answer being that I want my “new play to go well”) I was presented, with great ceremony, with a STICK, a ROCK, something hanging off of a piece of string, and another STICK and then I was informed that I now owed these gentlemen THREE HUNDRED DOLLARS. Further, they said, the “magic” would be more powerful if I gave them more, and vice versa. February 26 Part of what The Unmentionables is about is how we behave in a crisis, and why. There are some people, and we all know them, who you’d love to have around in a crisis; self assured people, the people who always seem to know exactly what to do. But I’m not one of those people. I happen to be a pessimist. It’s my nature. I focus on what is UN-heroic and IG-noble in myself and am naturally suspicious of optimists and those who talk about the great things that we Americans are capable of. I don’t feel like I’ve earned the right to be an optimist – it’s a luxury I can’t afford. Pessimism doesn’t mean defeatism. It just means looking realistically at what we DO, instead of what we like to SAY we do. And the nice part is, we pessimists are rarely disappointed. Sometimes we’re even pleasantly surprised. Read the full account of Bruce’s adventures in Africa at The Unmentionables runs in the Downstairs Theatre through August 27, 2006.