“Welcome to Europe!” As a British father and son reunite in Brussels and stumble through French to order food in a cafe, a young African waitress surprises both by speaking to them in English.
“Of course! This is Europe.” The father, Geoff Fallon (Clive Chafer) chides his 20-ish son Tim (Alex Klein) for speaking of EuroDisney and of visiting Buchenwald rather than engaging with his father’s work and obsession, postcolonial Africa. “At the very least, I’ve kept faith!”
This seemingly typical intergenerational misunderstanding is quickly intercut onstage with scenes of a different European welcome that Geoff Fallon is giving to his old friend and recent refugee Jean Kiyabe (L. Peter Callender), who has come to address the Euro Government: “The International Community. I cannot say I understand this phrase ... We call you birds. You fly in with your plans. You have such plans for us—and in our time of need and struggle, you are gone again ... Forgive me. I am here in sadness not in anger.”
TheatreFIRST’s production of Steve Water’s World Music (now playing at the Old Oakland Theatre on Ninth Street near Broadway) starts off like this, with intercut scenes and dialogue that bounce off the maze of committee rooms and around a center of international bureaucracy, with all the professions of friendship, the backroom jockeying for position and half-whispered trading of rumors and hunches that underpin the business of diplomacy. In this case it is the very undiplomatic declaration and censuring of genocide and all the arguments over terminology and cultural context to describe actions almost unimaginable.
In succeeding scenes, World Music settles down to the counterpoint of following Fallon’s driven existence, ceaselessly working on behalf of his old friends from Africa, against flashbacks of the arrival of his younger self (also played by Alex Klein) in Kiyabe’s village in “Irundi” to teach English, and how his beliefs are formed “on the ground.”
These are beliefs that are shown in their later professional expression and personal unravelling, as the contradictions and misunderstandings surrounding mass hysteria and killing find a touchstone in this lonely individual, so far from the events for which he declares a sense of personal responsibility.
“It’s hard to get an audience to come to a play about genocide,” said Clive Chafer, who’s also artistic director and co-founder of TheatreFIRST.
World Music proves to be a play about genocide that takes pains not to brutalize its audience’s perceptions with scenes of barbarity—or even the celebrated messenger’s grisly account of them.
Steve Waters tries to capture the aftershocks and backwash of events, to provide a tour around the perimeter of things too big, too horrible to grasp, by conveying a sense of their effects on both victim and perpetrator—and on those who stand by, wrestling with indifference, concern and feelings of helplessness as they’re called on to intervene, yet urged to act with discretion—or not to act at all.
By following the story of one man progressively wrapped up more and more in this deadly business throughout his adult life, the play skirts melodrama and avoids sentimentalism by staying focussed on the situations and relationships that crystalize around the figure of Geoff.
A drunken Kiyabe, rebuffed by Geoff’s colleague Paulette James (Leontyne Mbele-Mbong), who’s refused the “compliment” of being an African woman with “I don’t go further back than St. Kitts,” ominously asks her to protect him “when the time comes.” Florence (Shakira Patrice De Abreu), the waitress/philology student tells her would-be protector Geoff what her bad dreams are really about. Kiyabe snapping a picture of young Geoff and Odette (Ashleyrose Gilham), the young village woman who seems to be Kiyabe’s ward or captive. Geoff sarcastically says of his chief in their “lofty castle” of international government, Alan Carswell (Garth Petal), cutting a meeting short to see a Lithuanian delegation, “He’s sure keen on those Baltic States!”
These are all moments that expand into the world outside that Geoff “advocates” by sacrificing his own emotional life, becoming another refugee himself, an internal exile in a half-world peopled with representatives of the silent, arguing over words, and the guilty survivors, whose own stories betray them.
Dylan Russell has shown great care in directing a tight cast with a real commitment to perform a play that exposes the perils of that glib word, one used more for “committing” military aid or troops than for the unreserved giving of self, keeping their characters’ stories open to the dire contradictions they pose, and to the questions begged, rather than screamed out.
Presented by TheatreFIRST at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturdayby and 3 p.m. Sunday through May 21. Old Oakland Theatre, 461 Ninth St. (at Broadway), Oakland. 436-5085 www.theatrefirst.com.›