She’s One Woman With a Whole Lotta Show

It’s a pleasure to report the fabulous achievement of a modest one-woman show, The Dark Kalamazoo . Its author and star, Oni Faida Lampley, is a founding member of downtown’s Drama Dept., and for my part, I’m more than happy to become the founding member of the We Worship Oni Fan Club, assuming she hasn’t got one already.

Ms. Lampley isn’t telling the usual showbiz story about, say, making it as an actress in New York. The Dark Kalamazoo is a lovely, sensual, unneurotic odyssey in search of identity and sex and a younger self. Ms. Lampley, a born performer, is now in her late 30′s, I guess, and she’s looking back to the time she was 19 years old and went on her first trip to Africa, the only black student in an all-white group. The unusual piece is a fresh, good-humored take on an absurdist search for roots. “When they heard a black American woman was coming,” Ms. Lampley says of the Westernized women she met in Ghana, “they expected Diana Ross, but they got me.”

Actually, that “me” is a chunky black lady who’s shaved her head and looks great. There are times when Ms. Lampley’s like an exuberant kid in a sandbox. She’s so honest and innately funny as an actress, we might overlook that her lyricism and poetry take easeful, imaginative flight. “I grew up landlocked” are her opening words. “In Oklahoma City. My mother is the granddaughter of a slave and a Choctaw seamstress, daughter of a Mississippi sharecropper and an asthmatic bootlegger so scrawny, she’d strap bottles of corn whiskey round her waist and thighs, slide on overalls, walk and slosh and sell hooch all day, when she was well. Strong Black Women. S.B.W.’s!”

It’s Ms. Lampley’s birthday: “Today, I am as old as my mother was when she was as old as I thought a woman could get …. ” Her mother’s motto might have been Zora Neale Hurston’s: “De black woman is de mule a de world.” But Ms. Lampley seems the last person to feel beaten by anything much, including the weary weight of surviving a hard life, bad sex with her teenage friend Floyd, or the memory of skipping rope singing, “Niggas and flies, I despise, / The more I see niggas, the more I like flies!”

One day, she met a Ghanaian at Oberlin College-”the Harvard of the West.” “You must come to my country,” he told her. “You would be beautiful there! We would treat you like a wooo-mahn.”

“Where?”

“Ghana!”

“I’m comin’!”

What follows reaches the lunatic heights of identity crisis as soon as she arrives at the teeming African airport. “I wanted to get off the plane, and somebody African would gasp, ‘I know you! That Fulani nose-Ashanti brow! Welcome home, my sister!’ But nah-they ARE all starving and begging and snatchy and greedy! Why don’t they just list the rules?”

Because there are no rules. The passionate Ms. Lampley bursts with energy and heart, and the sadder aspects of black myths and rootlessness flicker beneath the surface. In her funniest, most humane scene, she shows us the earthy, hypnotic African dances-”the direct line to God and my ancestors!”-that she mastered in preparation for her Ghanaian odyssey. But all she hears when she gets there is Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” She brings down the house with that story, as she herself collapses in a disbelieving heap.

Of course, she ultimately brings something of great value back with her from Africa: call it acceptance, or freedom, or grace; call it her terrific sense of humor and this performance piece. The Dark Kalamazoo lasts for 90 intermission-less minutes, with music by the masterful Kevin Campbell. Oni Faida Lampley is a natural-the freest spirit on the New York stage.

God Love Joan Littlewood

That glorious, uncompromising Cockney, Joan Littlewood-who just died at 87-was, with Peter Brook (whom she despised), the seminal influence on mid-20th-century drama in England. If there are other director-producers to be currently found on either side of the Atlantic who can touch the generous, visionary talent of this self-proclaimed “vulgar woman of the people,” may they reveal themselves soon.

Littlewood’s fabled Theatre Workshop in the East London area, described in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as Stratford atte Bowe, was started in the early 1950′s in a crumbling Edwardian playhouse reeking of cats. She later staged such landmarks there as the Pierrot antiwar play Oh, What A Lovely War ; the rollicking, anarchic dramas of Brendan Behan; the working-class A Taste of Honey , by the 18-year-old Shelagh Delaney; and the transforming early Cockney musicals of Lionel Bart and Frank Norman. She steadfastly produced the classics, too, especially the Jacobeans, using the same ensemble of improvisatory actors who made the renegade new stars at the rival Royal Court Theatre look staid. “I love them,” she said of her own actors, “the bastards.”

Too outspoken for the taste of England’s snooty establishment, she was refused Arts Council subsidy for many years. Yet her artistic credo remained unshakable: She believed pre-eminently in an independent theater free of all commercial constraints.

The lady must have had a good laugh, then-or spun disbelievingly in her grave-at John Rockwell’s recent pronouncements about theater in The Times . Littlewood’s death came just as Mr. Rockwell, in an Arts & Leisure piece entitled “For Profit or Not, It’s All Showbiz,” announced with a jaded sigh of approval: “The fact is, distinctions between art and commerce-if they ever had much merit-have broken down today.” Falling into line behind those foolish, staggeringly defeatist words were the usual suspects of our nonprofit theater-among them, Bernard Gersten and Andre Bishop of Lincoln Center, and Todd Haimes of the Roundabout-who can’t see the difference between art and commerce, either.

Joan Littlewood saw the difference. She actually believed with all her considerable heart that theater is so fundamental to everyone’s lives that ideally it should be free . She believed there’s a great, big walloping difference between good and great art, and the bottom line and commercial crap.

Don’t you?

Littlewood, the illegitimate daughter of a Cockney servant, was the enemy of all that was nice, respectable, safe and middlebrow. In 1988, long after she had fled to exhausted retirement in France, she defined the National Theatre as that “elitist and middle-class anathema.” She wasn’t uneducated, as some assume. She attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, which she compared to a finishing school for debs, and her theater knowledge was rooted in Rudolph Laban’s experiments in movement, in the theories of Meyerhold, in Brecht (before Brecht became fashionable) and, above all, in the rough spontaneity of the traveling players of the Italian commedia dell’arte.

She left her socialist first husband for Gerry Raffles, who became her long-time theater partner and lover. The heart went out of her when he died in 1975 at the age of 51. She went to live in France (near where Raffles had died ) , in self-exile from the theater, and was befriended by the eccentric Baron Philippe de Rothschild, with whom she had a tender, platonic relationship. She lived on and off at his place, the Château Mouton Rothschild. When Playboy magazine interviewed the baron, she turned up at the dinner table dressed as a rabbit with pompom attached.

I met her only once, and it was when I was an undergrad at Oxford. She was being wined and dined at a local restaurant by Very Important People on the Oxford theater scene. I recognized her instantly. She was small and crumpled, and always wore a cap. She looked famously like a charlady and was about 40 then, a Cockney sparrow chain-smoking away. She seemed bored to tears, I must say, as if on stressful best behavior in the company she was keeping.

I don’t know what came over me. But I found myself impetuously shouting towards her across the restaurant the immortal words: “You don’t know shit about Manchester!”

People looked understandably puzzled-but her face lit up immediately! I knew of the true story that, when she set out to work in theater, she had walked from London to the northern city of Manchester, my home town. “People don’t walk to Manchester,” I teased her. “They flee the place!” She laughed good-naturedly, and immediately invited me and my chums to join her table. I didn’t know then-and she wasn’t about to tell me-that she’d done fantastic work in Manchester, a capital of radical theater in the 30′s and 40′s, where she staged an agitprop protest play for which she was arrested (a Lope de Vega production raising funds for the Republican cause) and, among much else, the first European staging of Clifford Odet’s Waiting for Lefty . Shame, shame to be such an ignorant pup. But she didn’t mind! She drank with us all that happy night till dawn, talking about theater and life as if we were equals.

God love her and cherish her memory.