England has never quite figured out its relationship with post-colonial Africa. "Child" Africa grew up and left home but instead of becoming a well-behaved, younger version of its "parent," it rebelled and built empires of its own. Those are the consequences personified by the characters in Lee Blessing's Going to St. Ives, an acutely drawn parable for the Post-colonial Era now playing at Redwood Curtain Theatre.
This uncertain relationship is clear from the outset when Dr. Cora Gage (Christina Jioras), an eminent English eye surgeon, invites May N'Kame (Juanita M Harris), mother of the brutal self-declared emperor of an unnamed Central African republic, into her home for tea to discuss May's upcoming operation. Cora is unsure whether to be the "doctor in charge" or the deferential provider commanded to take care of the emperor's mother, but May has no hesitation in asserting young Africa's power. Like a child testing the limits of her mother's patience, May challenges Cora to put her feelings into words — a very un-English thing to do.
She succeeds in extracting Cora's hidden agenda for the meeting — that May engineer the release of four doctors under sentence of death in her country. But she has also diligently researched Cora's life history, and uses the sharp weapons of knowledge to poke and prod, teasing out the circumstances of Cora's young son's death at the hands of an equally young African-American in Los Angeles. She demands to know whether a suppressed desire for revenge will affect Cora's judgment as she cuts into May's African eyes — a notion that appalls the doctor.
Cora, no longer self-effacing Englishwoman but a bundle of raw, grieving self-loathing, is unprepared for the request that May makes of her in return for this "favor" — to help her kill her own son and give her country another chance at life.
And so begins a journey that takes the two women beyond anything either has ever imagined. Just as the borders of African countries were arbitrarily drawn for the convenience of the British colonists, so the borders of morality appear based on accidents of fate and the arbitrary application of traditional mores. Cultural differences and similarities overlap and intertwine, families come together and fall apart, the nature of motherhood, indeed the very value of human life is called into question.
This journey is also mirrored in the subtext of a revenge story said to be depicted on the willow pattern china that was a complete tea set in England but is reduced to a single piece by the denouement in a hidden garden in Africa. The fate of that last piece of china may also be the fate of one of the women as they both reach a level of self-awareness that will dictate the next phases of their lives.
Redwood Curtain has waited more than 10 years to stage this particular play, originally scheduled in their old Eureka Mall location, primarily because the casting requires a black woman of a certain age with solid acting experience — not an easy role to cast on the North Coast. But the wait was well worth it — Harris is perfect as the imperious yet somehow vulnerable May, commanding the complete attention of both the audience and her fellow traveler. Jioras is a familiar figure to Humboldt County theater-goers, and her performance is equally assured. She seems at home in the body and spirit of Dr. Gage as she gradually emerges from her "nursery-rhyme world," as May calls it, into the realpolitik of the 21st century, without ever losing her essential Englishness.
The set works well in its second-act incarnation in Africa, but the dark walls and austere furnishings are hard to square with May's description of "a beautiful room" in St. Ives. Even at her lowest ebb, the very proper Cora would have more than a lone silver tea tray in her china cabinet. Costumes are spot on, with May's colorful royal robes and Cora's bland everywoman outfits perfectly reflecting each character's outward personality. Sound designer Jon Turney's choice of Beatles instrumentals leading into the opening act is uneven; There Are Places I Remember is a good scene setter, but Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds seems out of place.
Cassandra Hesseltine skillfully orchestrates the intricate dance performed by the actors, gradually revealing the almost imperceptible changes in each woman's perspective as they journey from the calm of the English countryside to the rough-and-tumble of Central Africa. Blessing specializes in works that describe large geopolitical challenges on the small palettes of individual stories, and Going to St. Ives is a timely reminder of what can happen to human beings when young countries are not carefully nurtured to maturity.
And the significance of the title? Well, that rather depends on your interpretation of the original riddle:
As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Each wife had seven sacks,
Each sack had seven cats,
Each cat had seven kits:
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were there going to St. Ives?
Going to St. Ives plays at Redwood Curtain Theatre through Nov. 21 with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with an additional Sunday matinee Nov. 15 at 2 p.m. For more information, call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.
It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play opens on Nov. 19 and runs through Dec. 12 at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Journal contributor Kate Haley directs five actors voicing all the parts on stage in this holiday family show that recalls the golden age of radio. Call 442-6278 or visit www.ncrt.net.