by Hugh Hunter
“Mud, River, Stone” (1997), by Lynn Nottage, now running at Stagecrafters and directed by Tracie Lango, tries to lay bare the dilemma that is modern Africa.
Sarah (Quisha Lawson) and David Bradley (Christopher Gladstone Booth) are a well-off Manhattan couple on vacation. But their enthusiasm to connect with their African roots dampens when they find themselves stranded during a tropical storm in an unnamed country. They take refuge inside the Imperial Hotel and find themselves living among some very odd people (a quite familiar set-up, “Bus Stop,” “Key Largo,” etc.).
Mr. Blake (Paul DiFerdinando) is a martini-swilling, African-born Englishman. Neibert (Anthony McNichol), a barefooted Belgian in flamboyant robes, studies the exotic customs of local tribes. Simone (Laura J. Seeley) is a United Nations envoy with a confused mandate. And there are the Africans: Ama (Erin N. Stewart), a lovelorn Nigerian aid worker, and Joaquim (Kyle Paul Dandridge), an ex-child soldier who now serves as the hotel’s surly bellhop.
Then suddenly, Joaquim snatches Blake’s revolver and holds everyone hostage. Why? Joaquim wants a shipload of grain and a blanket for his mother. More than that, the ex-child soldier is a bottomless pit of neediness and is desperate to assuage his sense of personal injury.
While we wonder how the hostage stand-off will resolve, everyone gets time to reveal who they are and what they are doing in Africa. They talk and talk, but you already know who they are — the post-colonial, the tourist, the dilettante. More like ideas than people, their real “role” is to show the uselessness of what they stand for in solving the problems of modern Africa.
Director Lango’s production is respectful and energetic. Her set is stunning, a colonial era hotel full of warm colors and burnished woods. African artifacts adorn the walls; luxuriant, wet foliage presses against rear patio doors. “Mud” would play very differently if the hotel were a seedy, post-colonial relic. (Set creation: Richard Stewart, Yaga Brady and Tracie Lango.)
Lango also uses a lot of physical movement in an effort to create dramatic tension where, frankly, there is none. DiFerdinando is perfectly cast as Blake. Dandridge is spot-on as Joaquim, the only character who seems to be having a good time, albeit a perverse one.
The hostage situation does come to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion. In fact, it almost rescues “Mud.” But problems remain. The play’s inclination to parody often clashes with its realistic elements. Questions nag. How can one person hold a group hostage for days on end without tying them up? Doesn’t Joaquim ever sleep? Why does the UN charter plane simply take off?
In “Mud,” playwright Nottage succeeds if her goal is to open up for discussion the problems of modern-day Africa. But we already know about these matters from the newspapers, and for me “Mud” is really an example of staged journalism.
Stagecrafters is located at 8130 Germantown Ave. “Mud” will run through April 24. Reservations available at 215-247-8881.