Although it sounds serious on the surface, Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine, is one of the funniest plays ever to grace a DC stage.
That’s the opinion of my colleague, John Stoltenberg, who calls it an “outright joy.” (Click here to read John’s review.)
Eric Ruffin, who directed the play, agrees. He attributes the hilarity of the play to its leavening of realism with large doses of satire, buttressed by mythology, fairy tales, ritual, and belief. And yes, there are also touches of gospel, rap, speaking in tongues, storytelling, and jokes.
Fabulation, in sum, is a modern fable, warning of the fall that awaits those who climb too high.
Undine is the climber. Named for the water nymph who becomes human, then dies when the man she loves casts her off, our heroine, too, has been dumped.
A product of inner-city poverty, this African-American striver has left the projects in Brooklyn. Armed with an Ivy League education, she has adopted a whole new persona and the patina of success.
One day she has her own professional firm in Manhattan, a handsome husband, and acceptance in the middle-class world. The next day, it’s all gone. Finito. She’s penniless, pregnant and forced to return to the place she had hoped to escape.
“Part satire and part parable of the soul,” is the way Ruffin described Fabulation at a meeting of Footlights DC, the venerable Washington area theatergoers group, earlier this month.
“Fabulation,” he added, “is about the journey of Undine (played by the extraordinary Felicia Curry) back to a world she had tried to forget.”
Confronting her back home are her mother (Roz White), her father (William Newman, Jr.), her grandmother (Aakhu TuahNera Freeman) and her brother, Flow (Kevin E. Thorne II). All of them take part in the rebirth, or ‘Re-Education,’ of Undine, forcing her to reconnect with her past.
One of the most compelling lessons, according to Ruffin, is the reminder of the slavery under which they once lived. That lesson is taught by Flow, a rap artist who brings down the house with a song about Br’er Rabbit, a fabled hero of the plantation who preached sedition.
For Ari Roth, founder and artistic director of Mosaic, the play is more than a journey to the past. Roth, who joined Ruffin at the Footlights event, pointed out that Fabulation, while schooled in realism, embraces pan-African motifs, including elements of the Yoruba religion.
Religion—in this case, Ifa, a spiritual creed based on Nigerian belief—plays an important role in the play.
Ruffin, who loves ritual, was determined to weave the trappings of faith into the story. He chose the ‘ring shout,’ a musical chant that was practiced by the slaves, to evoke the spiritual bond. Audiences, he predicts, will identify with these rhythms, since the ‘ring shout’ literally gave birth to American music, from gospel and soul to blues, jazz, and rap.
“There’s an Ancient Zulu saying,” Ruffin said. “ ‘We walk on the bones of our ancestors.’ As I see it, Fabulation is about the strength and value of walking on those bones.”
I was curious to learn about Ruffin’s own path—and whether it mirrored Undine’s—so I called the director a week later.
A native of North Philadelphia, he told me that while he grew up in an African-American milieu, his parents—hard-working people who knew how important education could be—insisted that he attend the Solis-Cohen School across town.
“It was a public elementary school with an emphasis on the arts,” he explained, adding that because of the school’s demographics, he knew the words to Ha-va-na-gila before he ever heard the Negro National Anthem.
(When I admitted to Ruffin that I’d never heard it either, he proceeded to sing it to me, in entirety, beginning with “Lift every voice and sing…”)
It was at Solis-Cohen that Ruffin began acting, appearing in The Music Man in sixth grade and starring as the Cheshire Cat in Alice the same year.
As a result of his arts background, he was admitted to the Philadelphia High School for the Creative & Performing Arts, a magnet school founded in the 1980s and modeled on New York’s celebrated High School of Music & Art. (Full disclosure: Lynn Nottage, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Fabulation, attended that school, as did I, several decades earlier.)
From there, he went on to Howard University, emerging as a leading actor, singer, and dancer. After several years of performing and a stint in the Navy, he decided to switch hats, and went to Rutgers for an MFA in directing.
Howard was a blessing for him, and a way of reconnecting with his roots. It meant so much to him, in fact, that he returned to Washington in order to teach at Howard, simultaneously embarking on his directorial career on the DC stage.
Two of his recent achievements are Black Nativity, which won three Helen Hayes Awards, and Serafina, which sold out when it moved to the Kennedy Center and had to be screened for an overflow crowd. Today, he also teaches at Duke Ellington, DC’s selective school for the arts.
Asked what—apart from Howard—draw him back to Washington, Ruffin laughed. “Everything,” he said. “DC is a mecca for the Black Intelligentsia, largely because of its concentration of historically black colleges. It’s also the second-largest theater capital in the US, with 80 to 120 productions at any given time.”
Happily for DC theatergoers, Fabulation is one of those productions, reminding local audiences that laughter, belief and the stuff of fables are alive and well today.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.
Fabulation, or the Re-Education of Undine plays through September 22, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC, located at the Atlas Performing Arts Center at 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or go online.