On the way to Timbuktu

  • Date:
    December 1, 2007

    The Ensemble Studio Theatre at 549 West 52nd Street offered the world premiere of a new play, written and starring Petronia Paley, last night. The play involves Dr. Selene Slater-Bernaud, who is also known to her friends as Slim. She teaches a class on Shakespeare�s sonnets. The name of the course is �The Poetics of Race�The Politics of Beauty.� Slim has been in a good interracial marriage for many years, but now finds herself in an affair with one of her female students. She must now confront the many personal problems that threaten to destroy her life. Slim must not only face her present problems but must deal with the situations that occurred in her earlier life.

    Ms. Paley is best known for her appearances as a veteran of daytime TV where she created long running characters on �Guiding Light� and �Another World.� She also has a long list of credits for Off-Broadway roles which include Gertrude in Hamlet, Madame Ranevskya in The Cherry Orchard, and Iris Preston in Relativity. Although Ms. Paley is an accomplished member of several acting companies she has written a muddled 80 minute one person show. Dr. Slater-Bernaud takes us through a stream of her own thought which provides insight into the many problems of this modern African-American woman. She goes from issue to issue without taking a breath or slowing down. Scene after scene presents us with another issue facing this intelligent woman. This list of personal troubles include a failing relationship with a white husband, leaving home for a trip to Africa while still in college, having a relationship with a man double her age while in Africa, having a strange relationship with her mother and sister, having a loving and sexual relationship with one of the students, dealing with the relationship between her husband of many years and her student lover, and dealing with her own sexuality. Ms. Paley describes all these issues, but fails to resolve any of her problems. Each issue is dealt with in random order which further causes confusion for the audience. It might have made it a better play if these problems were dealt with in some order. Some of the scenes even utilize Shakespearean prose which tends to confuse the audience. It is very difficult to follow the play as she wanders from topic to topic. Perhaps, this is why in the end she becomes mentally unstable and retreats into the world of Shakespeare.

    The production presented on a simple platform stage surrounded by candles and sand, does have a few positive moments. I particularly liked the multi-media projections of Maya Ciarrocchi. These projections tended to illustrate some of the more confusing scenes. The projections utilize light and shadow as well as fully presentation slides and do have an impact on this play. On the Way to Timbuktu has live music composed and performed by Min Xiao-Fen who sits just off stage and performs her compositions. Ms. Xiao-Fen plays her pipa, sings nicely, moans and makes sounds during the many of the scenes. Although her compositions add some exciting moments, it is very hard to associate this Chinese music with this particular play. However, it does make an interesting experiment. The play was directed by Talvin Wilks who is a playwright himself and whose pacing may have caused this production to be faulty.

    Although this production has some interesting moments, one never really understood Slim�s problems and how she could have resolved them. The audience just wanted to get as far away from this production as possible.

    Robert Rubin