‘No Longer at Ease’ a tense, furious work

4 May 2001 at 9:00 am (Press, Shows, Theatre) (, , , )

‘No Longer at Ease’
a tense, furious work

by Rohan Preston (Star Tribune)

If you like economical and evocative theater, go see “No Longer at Ease,” Pangea World Theater’s adaptation of Chinua Achebe’s novel.

As adapted by E.G. Bailey and directed by Dipankar Mukherjee, this “Ease,” in a premiere at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, captures the big themes and epic arc of Achebe’s work but little of his wry humor.

The brisk 21⁄2-hour drama veers from haunting ritual to heady realism, mixing these realms with a wonderful, no-fuss theatricality.

Set on the eve of Nigerian independence, the action involves Obi Okonkwo, a headstrong young man who has been sent away to school in England by his Ibo people. After four years abroad, Obi (the reverse of Ibo) returns westernized and scornful of his people’s traditions. His family forbids him to marry his girlfriend, Clara, who is from a group of outcasts. Obi moves in with her instead. When she becomes pregnant, Obi takes a bribe so he can pay for an abortion. He seems no different from the corrupt officials he condemns.

The action plays out on Seitu Jones’ striking, museumlike set. It is lined with elaborate carved African artifacts and furnishings, as well as 11 mainsail-style backdrops behind which the actors retreat. Sarah Schreiber’s expert lighting transforms the space from office to nightclub to home.

In the ritualistic scenes, imaginatively staged by Mukherjee, the broad themes are more important than the individual character development at the heart of most Western drama. The show is at its best during the stylized scenes.

For example, when Clara goes to have the abortion, she meets resistance from the whole community, lined up on one side of the stage. In half-shadows, the hissing, gasping townspeople walk in slow motion, pushing out at her as if trying to stop a car with bare hands. From the other side of the stage, Clara pushes until the two sides meet — and cross — at a threshold.

Then the scene dissolves, the lights brighten and the pace returns to normal. Mukherjee’s sensitive treatment of this section is a highlight.

By contrast, the realistic scenes are more predictable, and while those involving the conflict between European colonizers and African subjects may be historically accurate, they sound stilted.

Actor James Young II plays Obi like an ornery prizefighter. He comes on at full throttle for most of the show, his passion loud and clear. Young’s bombast is somewhat moderated by the company of actors around him, including Gregory Stewart Smith, who plays Obi’s brother and a host of other roles; Ronnell Wheeler as a ritual dancer and conspirator, and Marie-Francoise Theodore, who gives a knitted-brow innocence to the underwritten role of Clara.

— Rohan Preston is at rpreston@startribune.com .

*    Who: Adapted from the Chinua Achebe novel by E.G. Bailey. Directed by Dipankar Mukherjee for Pangea World Theater.

*    Where: Playwrights’ Center, 2301 E. Franklin Av., Minneapolis

*    When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Sunday, through May 27.

*    Review: This brisk, 21⁄2-hour drama about Nigeria on the cusp of independence veers between stylized ritual and heady realism, blending these disparate realms with a wonderful, no-fuss theatricality.

*    Tickets: $14-$16. Call 612-343-3390.

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