Theater Review - Fula’s errand

Horizon’s Fula explores heart of blackness

When Carlyle Brown begins his one-man show The Fula From America: An African Journey by strolling on stage, we first notice the backpack on his shoulders and the small suitcase in his hand. As Brown describes what he did on his African vacation, we eventually notice the words on his T-shirt: “Property of Black Africa & the African Diaspora.”

Brown explains how the African continent reclaimed part of his soul, and vice versa, on his trip there in 1981. Horizon’s second main stage production of its 2003 New South Play Festival, The Fula From America recounts a funny and moving travel narrative that never offers a rose-colored view of the “motherland.”

Brown says he came into $3,500 in 1981 (which sounds like the end of another monologue entirely) and decided to fulfill a dream of visiting Africa. It’s just a few years after the Roots phenomenon swept his generation, but Brown doesn’t know enough of his ancestry to try to trace it. Mostly he wants a genuine African experience that will replace the false, condescending Hollywood images that haunt his head.

Stepping off the plane in Senegal, Brown intones the tribal names like an incantation, and says that Africa has nearly as many races as species of animals. On a whim he decides to go to Freetown, Sierra Leone — mostly for the magical sound of the name — but because he lacks the money to go on safari or otherwise play tourist, he follows the haphazard, overland route of average Africans.

The monologue’s title comes when a fellow traveler theorizes that Brown came from the Fulani tribe. Subsequently, whenever Brown arrives someplace, strangers exclaim, “Ah, the Fula from America!” as news preceded him via the African grapevine. Brown proves to be an ingratiating performer, painting himself as a stranger in a strange land. He indulges himself at times — a celebratory dance to The Manhattans’ “Shining Star” goes on too long — but he’s willing to admit uncomfortable truths, like the occasional advantages of being an “ugly American.”

Brown appealingly plays some of the characters he encounters, including the many unofficial “tour guides” who attach themselves to him. He finds a throwback to imperial colonialism in an officious Frenchman trying to restore colonial homes, and at a Sierra Leone nightclub meets a police chief he calls a “black Sydney Greenstreet.”

Brown makes his clarity of detail his greatest strength. He notices at tense encounters at border checkpoints that the menacing teenage guards have automatic rifles and wear “iridescent green plastic sandals.” The script can take self-conscious turns, like when he says that staying in Graham Greene’s old Sierra Leone hotel room is “Escher-esque and Kafka-like.” And a reference to AIDS feels anachronistic (surely he didn’t know the disease by name at the time), although it nods to the disease’s disastrous effects on Africa today.

Director Louise Smith uses light more effectively than she does sound. Several times Brown interacts with pre-recorded voices which have so much echo that the show sounds like a seance. But Fula’s cunning use of darkness provides the play’s most vivid moments. At a former “warehouse for slaves,” shadows of metal bars fall across Brown, and the dimness hints at the brutal, claustrophobic conditions. When civil unrest erupts in Sierra Leone near the end, the lights go down until we can only see Brown’s silhouette and an owlish glow on glasses, as if he’s a mute witness to the death of a dream.

Fula finds many moments of laughter, but acknowledges Africa’s tragic aspects as well. Brown feels acute pains that Africa’s black population can’t make better lives for themselves. Fula shows how Brown embraces the African people for their kindness as well as their suffering, and falls in love with a continent, and not just an indistinct idea of it.