Lynn Nottage's Stone Asks "Who 'Owns' Africa?

Lynn Nottage's Stone Asks "Who 'Owns' Africa? The world premiere of Lynn Nottage's Mud, River, Stone launches it's 40-city tour at the Arena Studio Theatre in Buffalo, where it will run, in co-production with The Acting Company, Oct. 25-Nov. 17.

The world premiere of Lynn Nottage's Mud, River, Stone launches it's 40-city tour at the Arena Studio Theatre in Buffalo, where it will run, in co-production with The Acting Company, Oct. 25-Nov. 17.

Mud, River, Stone reveals an African-American couple who take their second honeymoon in Africa, in an attempt to return to their ancestral roots. When they find themselves hopelessly stranded in what was once a grand hotel, a "white hunter" challenges their pre-conceived notions of the "motherland." Helpless, in a rain-soaked jungle, the couple is forced to explore the true nature of who "owns" and who "belongs" in Africa.

The Acting Company, in existence for more than 20 years, commissions new works and draws actors from the nation's finest acting programs to tour the country in production. Originally founded by Margot Harley, the late John Houseman and members of the first graduating class of Juilliard's Drama Division, alumni include; Patti LuPone, Kevin Kline, Gerald Guiterrez and David Ogden Stiers. Mud, River, Stone was commissioned by The Company after Nottage's Crumbs Form the Table of Joy ran at New York's Second Stage Theatre in 1995.

Nottage told Playbill On-Line that she's thrilled to have this opportunity. Mud, River, Stone is different than any other work she's done for several reasons. On a personal level, it is the first production which enabled her to include her four-year experience as the national press officer for Amnesty International, an organization dedicated mostly to freeing and raising the conscience of people who are incarcerated due to their beliefs.

At Amnesty, Nottage obtained first-hand knowledge of human rights and interviewed many people from the African continent. Nottage took the job directly after graduating the Yale Drama School as a playwright. Nottage abandoned playwrighting while she conducted a disconcerting exploration of other goals and options she might pursue before settling into what has now evolved into a thriving career as a playwright. Secondly, Nottage refers to the process of working with the Acting Company as "unusual" and "marvelous," one that has been unlike any other. Most of the script's re-writing was done before the actors went into formal rehearsals, through a series of staged readings which began 1-1/2 years ago. Some readings were cold readings, others had been rehearsed with director Seret Scott for half a day, each occurring 4-5 months apart, giving Nottage time to work on the script.

Then the troupe spent two weeks rehearsing at The Acting Company facility in New York City, before moving to Buffalo for the remaining few weeks.

Nottage notes, "In some ways it's a blessing, because this is the first opportunity I've had to hear it [the script] many times, with a varied group of actors... If there's a line that continues to jump out at me, I know it's the line and not the actors."

Nottage was inspired to write Mud, River, Stone mostly from an article she read in the New York Times, about a group of "demobilized guerillas" who took hostage the entire village of Dombe, Mozambique, including tourists. Nottage was particularly struck by the fact "that there is so little information [distributed] on the content of Africa. This is true in both mainstream and African-American culture. I remember 2,000 people were slaughtered in Sudan and it was buried in the New York Times. It really disturbed me."

Nottage reveals that all of the play's characters "in their own way have mythologized Africa, and they come with certain expectations, layering their own wants and desires on to the continent, overlooking the reality. I see the play as an allegory about imperialism in Africa."

Nottage, who has interviewed many people and read many books on the continent, has never travelled there. She says, "I bring my own myths and romanticism to the script, and that's why it's seen through the eyes of African-Americans."

Mud, River, Stone is similar to others Nottage has written in that it is her third collaboration with director Seret Scott. The two met in 1993, at the Actor's Theatre of Louisville's Humana Festival of New Plays, where Seret was assigned to direct Nottage's POOF!. Scott also directed the recent production of Crumbs. . . at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, CA, the production from which the script will be published.

Nottage enjoys her relationship with Scott, explaining, "she certainly is an ear, and I trust her opinion . . . I feel comfortable going to her and asking her advice. She steers me in the right direction without pushing me in the direction she wants me to go."

The playwright also thinks Mud, River, Stone shares the humor that all of her pieces have. She says, "Hopefully people will smile more than they'll frown."

It seems that Nottage already has a clue of which way audience's mouths will curve. After watching the audiences during the previews, she is "amazed that they are with it every second, and they're laughing. . . It makes the ending work so much better, because it takes the breath out them."

The world premiere of Mud, River, Stone runs at the Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo through Nov. 17. Tickets are $130-16, and are available by calling (716) 856-5650, or by calling 1-800-77STAGE. If you can't catch it there, be sure to check Playbill on-line to look for when it will come through your city.

-- By Blair Glaser