Kineta Kunutu

Teach Them Well

Review of School Girls; Or the African Mean Girls Play, Yale Cabaret

Sure, we all know teens can be rather image-conscious—isn’t that when that tendency begins? No one—for the most part—quite likes the hair, skin, shape, features they inherit and have to “grow into.” In a girls’ boarding school in Ghana in 1986, the setting for Joceyln Bioh’s funny and thoughtful play School Girls, the growing pains are exacerbated by the pressure of a beauty pageant competition that will select a “Miss Ghana” from among the nation’s best schools to compete for the title of Miss Universe. The play dramatizes well the tension between community and competition—which is always part of schooling, often to debilitating effect. Someone gets to be “best student,” “most popular,” “most likely to succeed,” “best-looking.” Here, Paulina (Moses Ingram) wants to corral all those tags for herself, and woe to anyone who upsets this Queen Bee.

The play does a lot to tarnish Paulina. She’s an abusive bully toward hapless Nana (Malia West), a student who smuggles snacks between meals and gets called “a cow.” Paulina also undercuts her “best friend” Ama (Kineta Kinutu) at every opportunity (being “best friends” translates as “knowing all the dirt on each other”), and flaunts her popular-girl status for two underclassperson cousins, the hilarious Mercy (Vimbai Ushe) and Gifty (Gloria Majule). These two have mastered the art of public face—for Paulina, in line with her edicts—and private face—for each other, dispensing succinct shade. The early going of the play is refreshing in how it pokes fun at everyone, and at both the vanities of teens and the entire genre of teen comedy. As Headmistress Francis, Alexandra Maurice delivers the spot-on manner of the teacher—both steely and lovable—who cares deeply for her students.

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Will Paulina get a comeuppance, and what form will it take? That’s the general question of this genre, but Bioh knows whereof she writes in choosing this particular school-girl population: the playwright’s mother went to the school depicted in the play, and Bioh knows the kinds of family situations these girls come from, not least Ericka (Adrienne Wells), a brand-new transplant from the U.S. (Ohio, specifically) who has come to finish her last year of schooling in Ghana where her dad is a big cocoa tycoon. She is lovely and seems thoroughly guileless and that may be the hardest combo for Paulina to best. And Ericka knows the difference between designer clothes and knock-offs and, contra Paulina, that “White Castle” is nothing like a castle. Worse, Ericka’s late mother was white, and that unleashes Paulina’s  deepest insecurity.

All of Paulina’s efforts to be best can be fatally undercut by one fact: she’s darker than Ericka. As “Miss Ghana, 1966,” Eloise Amphonsha (Wilhemina Koomson), a former fellow-student at the school with Headmistress Francis, is a conceited recruiter for the pageant. Amphonsha wants Ericka because her fairer skin will make her competitive against all those very white countries that set the standards. She’s no doubt right about that, strategically, and she’s not really worried—though Headmistress is—about the message that sends. And there’s a further complication that makes choosing Ericka simply wrong. And yet.

As things get more intense, and less funny, Bioh is able to bring in the kinds of details that let us know why both Ericka and Paulina set such store by the façade each maintains. Both have suffered much, and getting to be “Miss Ghana” would be a way of overcoming at least some of it. The showdown is nicely matched by a showdown between Headmistress and Miss Ghana, 1966, and the elders’ reactions to how the girls behave is key to the drama here. Bioh knows that school both forms and deforms character and she lets all her characters have a chance at improving.

The cast, directed by first-year Yale School of Drama director Christopher D. Betts, works the material to rich effect. There’s a convincing command of how teens act, both among themselves and when adults are present, and when trying to be nice or just trying to play along. Ingram plays Paulina as “mean girl” as survival strategy, though we see her enjoy her manipulative side too much for us to be in her corner. As Ericka, Wells delivers a great coup de grâce at the end of her solo part in a choral rendition of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All” that is both impressive and funny. Seeing Paulina crumple in response makes us feel sorry for her even as we can’t help laughing. The other girls butcher their solos with awful aplomb, all the while singing lyrics like “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all” as if they know what that means.

The gaps between what we say and what we do, between what we try to teach and what kids learn are very real, and Bioh’s play makes the most of the irony of those situations while never losing sight of why we, collectively, have faith that effort for the sake of the young is never time wasted.

 

School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play
By Jocelyn Bioh
Directed by Christopher D. Betts

Producers: Riw Rakkulchon & Lisa D. Richardson; Scenic Designer: Jessie Chen; Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Sound Designer: Bailey Trierweiler; Costume Designer: Mika H. Eubanks; Technical Director: BenJones; Stage Manager: Edmond O’Neal

Cast: Moses Ingram, Wilhemina Koomson, Kineta Kunutu, Gloria Majule, Alexandra Maurice, Vimbai Ushe, Adrienne Wells, Malia West

Yale Cabaret
January 10-12, 2019

Up this week, January 17-19, is Charles Mee’s The Rules, adapted by Dakota Stipp, Zachry J. Bailey, Alex Vermilion, and Evan Hill. A wry and, one suspects, unsettling look at “the rules” we “civilized” try to live by.

Can History Be Healed?

Review of Seven Spots on the Sun, Yale School of Drama

As this gripping play goes on, Seven Spots on the Sun by Martín Zimmerman, directed by third-year Yale School of Drama directing student Jecamiah M. Ybañez, becomes an instance of folk history, one that derives its force from traumatic events. Designated as “The Town,” figures in a collective ensemble (Brandon E. Burton, Louisa Jacobson, Kineta Kunutu, JJ McGlone, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Jakeem Powell) voice a kind of stricken amazement at events that seem the stuff of legend. Zimmerman’s play, in treating the depredations of a civil war, its aftermath, and the effects of a general amnesty for war crimes, has its eye on the tragic course of more than one Latin American country, while the play’s manner lends itself to fable and the sort of retribution we may think of as Fate.

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Early on we learn that the town, which is overjoyed when radio transmissions recommence, accords special status to Moisés (Dario Ladani Sánchez), a former medic who has suffered more than most. So when he smashes the radio so as not to hear pronouncements about the newly instituted government, no one confronts him. The story of all he lost is told in parallel with the story of Mónica (Adrienne Wells), who speaks to the audience about her love for Luis (Robert Lee Hart), a miner in Ojona, who becomes a soldier because he expects it will provide more stability and an eventual pension. Wells’ straightforward address does much to give us direct access to life within the town.

Then the civil war comes, creating a horribly fraught world where victims of soldiers can be left to die in San Isidro’s town square while the town, frightened off by the hand-prints in white paint left as a warning, must endure the misery in their midst. As Belén, Moisés’ beloved, Sohina Sidhu’s emotional reaction to the cries of the dying boy (Powell) provides an important crux for the events to come. Whereas most of us have to read or watch news reports to be reminded, in the midst of our comfortable lives, that horrors are occurring elsewhere, Belén is unable to enjoy the mangoes that Moisés traded morphine for. Finally, goaded by her distress, Moisés agrees to take the boy into the clinic.

When soldiers are reported to be coming back to town, it’s understood that whoever has helped the boy will die. Moisés, despite his overt contempt for the cowardly priest Eugenio (José Espinosa), tries to find sanctuary in the church. Eugenio’s narration of what happens then is delivered by Espinosa as a shameful failure but also as if events are beyond his control—a feeling that gains conviction in the second part of the play. Meanwhile, Luis eventually returns from the war to his wife and newborn son, but he’s no longer the man his wife loved and she fears him.

The full details of the punishment visited upon Moisés are not revealed until late. In the play’s present, we see how, despite Moisés’ antipathy, Eugenio must come to him with a plea: there is a plague in the area that is besetting the children, its symptoms painful but sweet-smelling boils that cause death. Moisés reluctantly agrees to examine a child, then withdraws, appalled by his lack of ability and his own indifference. Eugenio comes again to tell him of a miracle: the child was immediately healed.

The parallel course of the play means that we shouldn’t be surprised that the child of Luis and Mónica will need to be healed by Moisés, but when we learn the part that Luis played in what became of Belén, the play creates a situation worthy of Solomon. At the heart of the dramatic situation is the question of atonement and forgiveness, and how wounds to the social body cannot be healed any other way, though it is more typical to expect that whoever has the upper-hand will exact whatever price satisfies the lust for revenge.

The deftness of the play’s plot is much to its advantage. This is not a realistic tale that strains credulity, but rather a fable about war and love, about hatred and desperate need. The four main characters have both a genuine specificity and a generic quality. The male roles are difficult due to the extremes the actors must evince. Hart’s Luis seems an aloof lover who does what he wants and expects his wife to accept his view; his eventual transformation seems not to take as much toll on him as it might. Sánchez’s Moisés is quite effective in his despair, but perhaps less so in his ultimatums. We have to believe in these characters as persons caught up in events beyond their control and then see them as figures of ultimate nemesis. It’s a striking situation, and an admirable effort.

The boxlike set makes the town seem a cell, an interesting comment on how all are imprisoned by past events they can’t overcome. Late in the play, a wall falls as if breaking through a façade and into the dark events that keep the town spellbound. The fascinating ensemble, with expressive choreography by Jake Ryan Lozano, creates the manner of a people struck to the heart by the story it must tell for the sake of its souls, the individual members wearing haunted looks that stay with us beyond the wrenching outcome.

Grim and trying, Seven Spots on the Sun’s sense of humanity is not without redemption, though it firmly presents the horrors of history as a curse upon the present.

 

Seven Spots on the Sun
By Martín Zimmerman
Directed by Jecamiah M. Ybañez

Choreographer: Jake Ryan Lozano; Scenic Designer: Lily Guerin; Lighting Designer: Evan Christian Anderson; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Sound Designer and Composer: Andrew Rovner; Projection and Video Designer: Christopher Evans; Production Dramaturg: Evan Hill; Technical Director: Jenna Heo; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey

Cast: Brandon E. Burton, José Espinosa, Robert Lee Hart, Louisa Jacobson, Kineta Kunutu, JJ McGlone, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, Jakeem Powell, Dario Ladani Sánchez, Sohina Sidhu, Adrienne Wells

 Yale School of Drama
December 13-18, 2018

Pick Up the Pieces and Go Home

Review of It’s Not About My Mother, Yale Cabaret

People mourn in different ways, true, but one of the tasks of surviving someone is having to dispose of all their stuff. This can be an emotionally fraught act, even more so when the partners on the job are estranged half-sisters, born over a decade apart, who have rather different takes on their late mother. It’s Not About My Mother takes familiar ground—children rehearsing a deceased parent’s failings—and, as directed by stage manager Sam Tirrell and enacted by third-year actors Kineta Kunutu and Amandla Jahava, conjures up a celebration of siblings coping.

Midge (Kunutu) is the elder, and she opens the show by opening a box among the dozens in her mom’s packed basement. There she finds a glam jacket that immediately conjures up a memory of Mom (played here by Jahava) as a bitter, chain-smoking live-wire, almost feral in her fierceness. This is going to be tough, we readily assume. Shortly after, storming in like Mom, the Sequel, comes younger sister Nancy (Jahava) who claims she’s twenty-three but acts, around big sister Midge, like a precocious brat age-shifting back to puberty and even earlier. Her latest discovery is how to include “fuck” or “fucking” in every sentence. When she went off to college, Nancy left Midge to deal with Mom all alone, which wasn’t such a change as, we learn, Midge has pretty much been playing mother to both her sister and her mom since age twelve.

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It’s Not About My Mother is about making sense of the life that shaped your own. The rifts and gaps between the sisters are the stuff of the play and what makes it work so well, in the Cab’s actual basement space, is the appealing rapport between Kunutu and Jahava. Kunutu plays well the authoritative adult, so that when she falters before her sister’s laser-like vision, things get interesting. Jahava plays Nancy as a bundle of nerves, with so much energy that watching her is almost exhausting. She moves with the abandon of a child who seems not to take the physicality of objects seriously. Together, the two actors create a fascinating back-and-forth between sisters who don’t want to be strangers.

A key moment is Midge’s memory of childhood and a vision of Mom—working as a layout artist for a newspaper—that feels like a fairytale to Nancy (when Nancy was four, Midge was already the employed adult in the house). We don’t know the story of what went wrong with Mom, but we do get the story of how siblings can help each other get out from under the shadow of such a dominant personality. Both sisters are lesbians and Nancy wonders aloud whether it was the lack of men in their lives that clinched the predilection. She’s fond of psych-major summaries of what things mean. Midge isn’t so naïve and remains focused on getting things done and not making more drama than is unavoidable.

At one point, Kunutu transforms into Mom, in a much more together version that the one we saw through Midge’s eyes, and talks in a bantering way with Nancy. The sense of Nancy as the favored sibling, the baby, and, for that reason, the more selfish one, comes through forcefully, a vision learned at her mother’s feet. What Nancy—ultimately—has to give Midge is the use of selfishness. Midge’s life was home with Mom, who seemed to withdraw from the world more and more. The mother’s only consolations, apparently, were cigarettes, clothes, and the music of Stevie Nicks with Fleetwood Mac, the romantic band of the late 1970s.

The play very deftly makes us see Mom and her heroine from the kids’ point of view. The sense comes through loud and clear that life with Mom meant hearing Stevie Nicks ad nauseam, and the play’s use of her songs—quite able to conjure phantoms in their own right—lets us hear how the music of Mom’s good times was the soundtrack of her kids’ childhoods. When—after airing griefs enough—Midge and Nancy set the glam jacket on a sofa with boa and cigarette, then kowtow, the sense of being fully on the same page is joyous.

Finally, even straight-laced Midge lets her adolescent self loose. The show’s climax has Kunutu and Jahava going wild to the tune of Fleetwood Mac’s live rendition of “Rhiannon,” the quintessential Stevie Nicks song, with Jahava vamping with drapes appropriately. It’s an explosion of fellow feeling, a conspiracy between siblings to kick out the jams and toss survivor’s guilt into the reject pile. This is survivor’s glee, an ecstatic goodbye that replaces the memory of their mother’s depressing funeral with a hearty rave that Mom the party girl would’ve embraced. As a send-off, it’s the stuff of rock’n’roll dreams.


It’s Not About My Mother
By Lizzie Milanovich
Directed by Sam Tirrell

Producer: Laura Cornwall; Dramaturg: Rebecca Adelsheim; Scenic Designer: Gerardo Díaz Sánchez; Lighting Designer: Kyra Tamiko Murzyn; Sound Designer: Kathryn Ruvuna; Costume Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Stage Manager: Taylor Hoffman; Technical Designer: Austin J. Byrd

Cast: Kineta Kunutu, Amandla Jahava

Yale Cabaret
November 15-17, 2018

O Brave New World!

Review of as U like it, Yale School of Drama

Shakespeare’s As You Like It abounds in binaries: good brother, bad brother; daughter of duke in power, daughter of duke in exile; woman dressed as a woman, woman dressed as a man; and the most formative: the court where Duke Frederick holds sway, and the open spaces of the forest of Arden. Adapted from Shakespeare’s play by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, as U like it, a thesis show at Yale School of Drama, directed by Weinstein, takes the idea of Arden and runs with it toward utopia. There might be a future imaginable that would redeem all that is unbearable in our current world, beginning with the binaries that govern our sexual identity, our politics, our way of being in the world.

As the playbill states, quoting Oscar Wilde: “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth glancing at.” Breslin, the production’s dramaturg, comments: “the word and the concept of utopia contains a paradoxical challenge: Can the perfect place ever exist? Perhaps not. But if it could, how would you draw it up?” For Weinstein and Breslin, the perfect place follows the thinking of Tavio Nyong’o and Jack Halberstam (as quoted in the playbill), foregoing “the idealizations of straight utopian thought for the wilder speculations of queer utopia.” In its panoply of mash-ups that tease at the edges of libidinal freedom, as U like it is born of such speculations.

But first, that court. Its status as a prison-culture is underlined on every front. The audience sits regimented in seats as if waiting their turn at Motor Vehicle Services. The closed-circuit television randomly scans the crowd and puts our faces onscreen, behind all-capital declarations like on SNL. The loud drum loop is a call to martial glory, a downer deadening to any chipper bonhomie. Eventually Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese) arrives, a preening coxcomb of a leader. He wants answers, he wants results, he wants to browbeat everyone, including his somewhat vaporish daughter Celia (Eli Pauley) and her scrappier bosom buddy Rosalind (Amandla Jahava). (You’ll be forgiven for thinking of Cher and Dion.)

Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese, center), with Rosalind (Amandla Jahava), Celia (Eli Pauley), and Olivia (Zoe Mann) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Duke Frederick (John Evans Reese, center), with Rosalind (Amandla Jahava), Celia (Eli Pauley), and Olivia (Zoe Mann) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Rosalind becomes enamored of Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz), a Leo-like hero who reacts to her interest as if he just got tickets to a sold-out show. And that’s after he has defeated the Duke’s champion Charles (Brandon E. Burton, playing up sports-star narcissism with the help of Danielle Chaves’ hilariously fawning and preemptory News Anchor). This part of the show, with its fascistic trappings—such as name-tags each audience member is given that ask questions about gender, marital status, virility, and sexual preference—is blessedly short, but long enough to give us a clear glimpse of a future we’ve feared at least since 1984.

Rosalind, glad to be banished from this total bummer, invites—nay, exhorts—us to go with her, now dubbed Ganymede, and her sidekick Celia, now called Aliena. And we do, traveling down a short hallway to a new world unfurled. Here there are bowers and closets of to-die-for accoutrements, there are strolling players inviting us to paint our faces, tattoo our bodies, and get to know one another NSA. On a catwalk, Chaves has metamorphosed into Hymen, a glam queen à la Aladdin Sane, a mistress of ceremonies who teaches us a dance and holds forth in song, punctuated with the kind of salacious patter made famous by the MC of Cabaret.

Hymen (Danielle Chaves) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, with music by Julian Hornik, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Hymen (Danielle Chaves) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, with music by Julian Hornik, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

If you might expect the story we’re following to begin to fall apart, have no fear. Weinstein’s cast keeps its discipline in the midst of the freely moving audience and it’s quite impressive to see. Putting on the show means moving props and that sectional catwalk to places as needed, and it also means the principles have to be on spot in the different regions of Arden to deliver their additions to the new plot, which is—of course—all about eros. There’s a hint of Sleep No More in the way, as a visitor of Arden, you might find yourself caught up by some of the displays courtesy of scenic designer Elsa GibsonBraden, with Emma Deane’s bower-like lighting design and ambient sound (Liam Bellman-Sharpe) and projections (Brittany Bland) creating a total environment. Observably impressive too is the way the “radical faeries”—Zak Rosen, Annie Saenger, Tarek Ziad—take care of business, making sure things happen when and where they should, and standing in as ancillary figures to start a progress, swell a scene or two.

The thinker of this utopia is Dyke Senior (Kineta Kunutu), dressed like a kind of psychedelic revolutionary, spouting—as revolutionaries will—earnest slogans from texts meant to liberate as they berate. She dwells in her Lesbian Colony where patriarchy is the source of all woe and sex-by-penetration an act of violence. Meanwhile, over in Silvius’s Poetry Glade, poor lovelorn Silvius (Burton again, now a challenged-by-fashion nerd) earnestly seeks the smiles of Phebe (Evans again, a lad on the make in a skimpy tie-dye sleeveless T). And don’t neglect Jacques’s Out-of-the-Closet corner where Jacques (Erron Crawford), the Prince-like cynic of Arden—“fuck children, fuck the future” is his mantra—gets an airing, letting us know that self-actualization is the order of the day. Later, his “seven ages” speech stresses how much our “ages” are roles we play, or maybe it’s just that we let others cast us in those parts.

Phebe, a professed top, finds himself entertaining notions of bottoming in abandon for Ganymede, a butch Rosalind in leather and hose and attractive facial hair. Poor Celia/Aliena flounces about in drapery and wishes Rosalind would drop the hetero hang-ups and embrace omnisexuality. But alas, though Orlando might don foppish attire and let Ganymede give him one on the lips, it’s still a story of girl meets boy and boy meets girl. Orlando loves Rosalind and vice versa, and Jahava enacts the aggressive damsel well, full of androgynous machismo. Who might be equal to Celia’s pining? Who should arrive but Duke Frederick’s sister Olivia (Zoe Mann, a bit like Janet at Dr. Frankenfurter’s), alienated from her macho brother and maybe ready for reeducation.

Rosalind as Ganymede (Amandla Jahava), Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz) in  shakespeare’s as u like it  adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

Rosalind as Ganymede (Amandla Jahava), Orlando (Hudson Oznowicz) in shakespeare’s as u like it adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin, directed by Emma Weinstein (Photo by T. Charles Erickson, 2018)

The play, in the midst of all the diverting busyness, goes off much as you’d expect while being vastly entertaining and wonderfully apt in its re-conceptions. An added treat is seeing the shows collaborating creators, Weinstein and Breslin, inhabiting Arden with the rest of us, duly tickled or moved by what goes on there—such as, for hilarity, Phebe’s show-stopping take-off on Mommie Dearest, and, for lyrical beauty, the passage in Mrs. Dalloway in which Clarissa contemplates Sally Seton, recited by the ever-eroticized Celia.

The attentive will catch an array of allusions, quotations, borrowings and such throughout. The whole punctuated by Chaves’ strutting and asiding and singing and making a show of being on show. And don’t forget the songs by Julian Hornik, my favorite probably the one sung by Jacques, a paean to how animal we all are when the accessories come off. The play ends not merely with the marriage of three couples—male/female, female/female, male/male—but our subversive MC orders us all to find a partner—dosey-doe—and get hitched along with the characters. As Groucho might say, “Bigamy? Of course it’s big o’ me. It’s big o’ you too. Let’s all be big for a change.” Eros, after all, is the life force. Til death do us part.

A fantasy, a celebration, a provocation, as U like it is also a lesson in how to rise and risk against a repressive status quo for the sake of joy and fun. If you don’t like it, I fear for U.

 

William Shakespeare’s
as U like it
adapted by Emma Weinstein and Michael Breslin
with original music by Julian Hornik
directed by Emma Weinstein

Choreographers: Michael Breslin, Erron Crawford; Music Director, Arranger, Composer, Sound Designer: Liam Bellman-Sharpe; Scenic Designer: Elsa GibsonBraden; Costume Designer: Alicia J. Austin; Lighting Designer: Emma Deane; Projection and Video Designer: Brittany Bland; Tent Installation Designer: Itai Almor; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Production Dramaturg: Michael Breslin; Technical Director: Kirk Keen; Stage Manager: Sam Tirrell

Cast: Brandon E. Burton, Danielle Chaves, Erron Crawford, Amandla Jahava, Chad Kinsman, Kineta Kunutu, Zoe Mann, Hudson Oznowicz, Eli Pauley, John Evans Reese, Zak Rosen, Annie Saenger, Oliver Shoulson, Camille Umoff, Tarek Zlad

Musicians: Margaret Douglas, bass; Thomas Hagen, drums; Jeremy Weiss, piano; Jonathan Weiss, guitar

Yale School of Drama
October 23-27, 2018

On the Verge of an Enormous Breakthrough

Review of Mies Julie, Yale Summer Cabaret

August Strindberg’s nineteenth-century play Miss Julie is a gripping battle of the sexes situated as a class struggle as well. The possibilities of dominance by class—Miss Julie is the master’s daughter—come up against the social norm of male dominance—John is a very masculine groom who, by reason of his own knowledge of the world and of books, feels himself to be above his station. The play is a dynamic rendering of their struggle with their desires, their dissatisfaction with their roles, and their willingness to use, abuse, and maybe even—if it were possible—love one another. It has long been a staple of classic theater for its exploration of two people caught in an intense situation.

Yaël Farber has brilliantly adapted that situation to modern times, specifically South Africa on Freedom Day, almost a decade after apartheid’s end. The class division—Julie (Marié Botha) is still the master’s daughter grown up on a farm owned and run by her father, and John (James Udom) is still the master’s servant, who also grew up on the land—is now given further dimension by racial difference, and by the lingering, vexed question of reparations.

John (James Udom), Julie (Marie Botha) (photo: Yaara Bar)

John (James Udom), Julie (Marie Botha) (photo: Yaara Bar)

The question of who actually owns the land the farm occupies is given a strong thematic element by the fact that John’s ancestors are buried beneath a tree whose roots are beneath the manor house’s kitchen, where all the action takes place. John’s mother, Christine (Kineta Kunutu) runs the kitchen and feels not only connected to the house she serves but also to the land where she wants to be buried with her forebears. As the play opens, John is clearly tired of his subservient role and believes the time is right to assert claims of independence and equality.

Julie becomes for John both a goad to overcoming any sense of social inferiority as well as a provocation to his manhood. And she plays to both urges, as well as exulting in the fact that he has had strong feelings for her ever since her mother—a distraught and neglectful woman who ultimately took her own life—brought the infant home. Julie sees Christine as a surrogate mother, so that the passion ignited between the boss’s daughter and the servant is further complicated by the fact that Christine, in essence, raised them both.

Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), Christine (Kineta Kunutu) (photo: Yaara Bar)

Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), Christine (Kineta Kunutu) (photo: Yaara Bar)

A further dramatic element is the presence throughout the play of Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), an ancestor spirit who acts as a kind of silent Greek chorus. Her interactions with the action take many subtle forms, and her mere visual presence is enough to make us feel how haunted the relations between John and Julie will swiftly become. The sense of past injustice is significant, but there is also something perhaps mythic in the land as well (and Sophia Choi's costumes and Fufan Zhang's set create a compelling overlap of eras). Farber deliberately evokes a sense of ties that extend well beyond a particular historical eventuality.

And, of course, the force of love and lust extend well beyond social forces. To see Julie and John come together is to see not only a celebration of the fact that interracial coupling is no longer an illegal immorality in South Africa, but a long-awaited release of tensions of attraction and resentment that have bedeviled both character’s lives. Director Rory Pelsue boldly lets sexuality play the part it must, and Botha and Udom bring off the scenes of coupling, so necessary to the physical dimension of their struggle, with great finesse.

Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), Julie (Marie Botha) (photo: Yaara Bar)

Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), Julie (Marie Botha) (photo: Yaara Bar)

The presence of Ukhokho—in Jahava’s very expressive and at times almost sprite-like incarnation—stacks the deck against Julie. Her blonde whiteness seems the anomaly it has always been, but even more so in this context. Botha’s Julie, while displaying some of the wild mood swings of the original, is more vulnerable than Miss Julie is generally considered to be, and she plays the part with an almost childlike wonder at the effect she is able to generate in her father’s smitten servant. Her efforts to humiliate him when he takes liberties have a charge that seems to chasten her in the same instant. And her insistence on the clarity of violence keeps a knife’s edge between them, but for one blissful moment.

As John, James Udom is fierce and strongly intelligent. He is able to convey John’s hopeless feelings as well as his sense of his own dignity. He won’t be Julie’s pawn, but he’s more concerned about being the pawn of his own passion and where that might lead. When his mother at one point slaps his face and cries “what have you done,” we feel the degree to which any act of his can destroy a delicate status quo, though John is never unaware. He simply chooses to ignore his mother and his duty when it suits him.

John (James Udom), Christine (Kineta Kunutu), Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava)

John (James Udom), Christine (Kineta Kunutu), Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava)

As Christine, Kunutu delivers her second very fine performance this summer at the Cabaret. In her own way, Christine is as fierce as her son, though in her case the power comes through as a “I shall not be moved” tenacity that no amount of importuning can weaken. Her “children” are playing with fire and out to destroy the status quo or themselves. Christine sees what there is to preserve—the land and the duty to the ancestors.

The force of the future colliding with the past shapes the choices these characters confront. In Strindberg, there’s nowhere the couple can go to live free of their past—such is the power of class relations that has poisoned their lives. In Farber’s contemporary world, the pair might go anywhere, almost, but what overrules them is the unfinished business of race relations in South Africa, a future that Farber’s play figures as a tide of blood.  

Enthralling and fascinating and disturbing, the Yale Summer Cabaret’s Mies Julie adds more heat to a hot summer.

Julie (Marie Botha), John (James Udom) (photo: Yaara Bar)

Julie (Marie Botha), John (James Udom) (photo: Yaara Bar)

Mies Julie
Retributions of Body & Soul
since the Bantu Land Act No. 27 of 1913
and the Immorality Act No. 5 of 1927
Written by Yaël Farber
Based on Miss Julie by August Strindberg
Directed by Rory Pelsue

Production Dramaturg: Charles O’Malley; Scenic Design: Fufan Zhang; Costume Design: Sophia Choi; Lighting Design: Elizabeth Green; Sound Design: Kathy Ruvuna; Stage Manager: Olivia Plath; Fight Choreographer: Emily Lutin

Cast: Marié Botha, Amandla Jahava, Kineta Kunutu, James Udom

Yale Summer Cabaret
July 14-23, 2017