"Ethiopia, the Musical" -- The History of A Nation Over Six Octaves.
Ken Krantly of the New York Tymez
In a bold, albeit senseless, endeavor, "Ethiopia, the Musical" attempts to traverse the wide expanse of that African nation's history through piercing drama and song. To be sure, much is manipulated or left out of the ancient country’s vibrant history in this show, but the distilled nectar that contrarian playwright Georgis Tesfaye squeezes into the three hour performance still proves chokingly rich.
In the end, however, the play seems to fall face first in a morass of faux sentimentality and sheer absurdity that left me wondering whether it was high art or utter tripe. I stumbled out of the Off Off Broadway Revisionist Theatre feeling like I had just been seduced by a long, loving embrace from the most beautiful woman in the world, only to learn later that she is, in reality, a steel pole. I could not help feeling somehow betrayed.
The show opens with a misplaced light, brassy piece -- vaguely reminiscent of The Friends of Distinction's remake of Hugh Masekela's "Grazing in the Grass" -- called "Most of Us Swat The Flies Away," sung by a chorus composed entirely of overweight people in leopard-pattern leotards, an obvious attempt to challenge the audience's pre-existing misconceptions about Ethiopia. During the number, the chorus glides through some lackluster synchronized dance steps, simultaneously swatting at enormous papier-mâché flies that swoop down at them from above the stage.
To drive home some sort of message, the flies are labeled "USA," "Russia", and, curiously, "Ecuador." With lines likes, "listen, Ms. Sally Struthers/for some of us, hunger was hell/our bellies may have been swollen/ but not as much as our sense of self," the number proves poignant, if overwrought. My companion, Milwaukee area urologist Mesfin Paulos, commented, "It was kitfo-reffic. Raw, spicy, and nourishes the soul."
Unfortunately, the subsequent plot of the play leaves the audience feeling as if they had a truckload of contempt unceremoniously dumped on their heads. The overwhelming majority of the show is fictionalized without any semblance of a reason or purpose, and historical time seems to ebb and flow like the Blue Nile during a transcendental cyclone.
During the first Act, Moses' wife returns to her Ethiopian homeland to hide the Ark of the Covenant from nosy Harvard professor Henry Louis-Gates (portrayed in a Tony Award level performance by a restrained Al Roker). Gates' solo, "Let Me See The Box," drips with scorn and self-righteousness, transforming him into a banal villain. The song is guided by a menacing organ riff that would make Billy Preston squirm in his seat.
We are left not loathing Gates so much as having a pressing anxiousness to be rid of him. Hence, there is understandably scant sympathy for him when he is eaten by a flatulent hyena named Bobbi, who soon thereafter aligns himself with a group of Portuguese who are attempting to convert the Emperor Yohannes to Buddhism in a mad-cap scheme to take over the world's supply of tef in a plot line that eventually goes nowhere.
The Italians, not to be outdone by the "flashy Portuguese," attempt to kidnap a subsequent Emperor’s, Menelik, grand obelisk to coerce that emperor into allowing the Italians to establish pig farms in the country as part of an incomprehensible grander scheme of conquest. It is never explained how or why pig farms were advantageous for the Italians; "I hate pigs," was the succinct, unhelpful explanation Mr. Tesfaye gave me when asked about this part of the play. Nevertheless, the "Prosciutto Plan" is thwarted by the devout Hindu forces of Mahatma Gran, who pummel the Italian miscreants with meditation and dance. Thereafter, the country enters into a period of gloppy, shifting political boundaries that are chronicled in the Act's signature piece, "This Land Was Your Land, Now It's My Land."
The second Act of the play leaps forward to the World War II period, where the Italians return to colonize Ethiopia. It is here that the play, much like a nervous cuttlefish, begins squirting out even more obtuse nonsense seemingly to obscure the playwright's utter inability to control his play and make a genuine connection with his audience's sensibilities. It is also here that it becomes increasingly clear that Mr. Tesfaye's "creativity" would perhaps best strike home if one had ingested a heavy dosage of Lithium.
The Ethiopian Army, headed by Emperor Haile Selassie, retreats to Paris to regroup after a vicious Italian invasion (led not ironically -- nor originally for that matter -- by the "Bacon Brigade," a group of salty commandos handpicked by Italian Dictator "Fussilini."). In need of reinforcements, Selassie convinces a group of pot-smoking Jamaicans that he is the human incarnation of God and that they should join his army. Selassie's forces then proceed defeat the Nazis in just three days. Offered to chance to rule the world, the humbled Emperor decides that his country is more than enough for him, and he returns to Ethiopia to start a tomato garden and commence post-war rebuilding efforts. Struck by God's humility, the Pastafarians (as they now became known because of their love of noodles cultivated by their time fighting in Italy) return to Jamaica to reflect on his greatness by smoking ganja, not combing their hair and playing drums.
None of this action is displayed on stage. Rather, it is recounted to us by a narrator sitting alone center stage on a bucket in soiled white underwear. His significance is never explained, but seeing as I had already grow weary by the show's shameless existentialism, I had come not to care so much. All I could think of was how much Lawrence Fishburne had really let himself go.
The narrator then recounts how Emperor Selassie grows restless in his early retirement from world affairs. He puts together a band of lovable imps and well-meaning misfits who, using cunning and guile, liberate Ghana from the shackles of British colonialism and later inspire the rest of Africa to reach for liberation. "Ghana Get You To Believe In Freedom" is quite simply the most powerful performance in the play. Sung in the al dente style of 1950s African-American pop, the song spreads hope and inspiration like warm margarine: lightly, but tastefully. After liberating Africa, Emperor Selassie becomes an explorer and later discovers the Moon.
Act III is a winding exegesis that goes nowhere in particular. At least, that is what the common theatergoer would think, as much of it involved rocks banging together or people diving on top of rocks or rocks falling on top of people as Mulatu Astatke tracks play in the background. The rock action is broken up by a brief, nonsequitur interlude, where a group of British pop singer look-alikes serenade a group of thin Ethiopian children with their mid-1980s anti-hunger song, "Do They Know Its Christmastime?" The Ethiopian youths respond with their own song, "Half of Us Don’t Care Its Christmastime Because We Are Muslim (Just Send Food)."
My companion Mesfin speculated that the rocks might be some sort of political allegory, commenting on the emptiness and meaninglessness of the civil strife that his country has had to contend with for decades. His explanation was thoughtful, yet, it does not take into account (i) the man in the giant parrot suit or (ii) the pile of pears on the left edge of the stage or (iii) the grand finale which featured an Idi Amin in drag holding a tea party for what appeared to be a government building and a group of elderly British pensioners.
Towards the end of the Act, Robert Mugabe arrives with the wine, and the party devolves into an almost orgiatistic rave as the show climaxes with the psychedelic and vulgar "I Want Those Rocks, Give Me Your Rocks, Get Your Rocks Off, Baby!" Mugabe leaves with the building, more rocks bang together, then, finally, the curtain. The final act comes off as being rushed, truncated and incomplete.
It is unclear whether Mr. Tesfaye is trying to trivialize the rich and storied history of his homeland or has dived head first into some sort of jargony artistic "ism" hoping to redefine popular conceptions of self and nation. I cannot bring myself to conclude that the nonsensical can be art, and, yet, I was riveted to some extent by his apparent madness.
I later asked Mr. Tesfaye -- who stands a Lautrec-esque four feet tall and has a habit of gesticulating wildly with his enormous, callused hands even when he is sitting silently before you -- whether his play reflects a disdain or contempt for his history and culture. His sole response was to poke me again with a stick. His erratic behavior brought back troubling memories of the time David Mamet harangued me with a sock puppet. Then I asked him whether his piece was an exercise in gross self-absorption. He responded by put on a pair of large white gloves, a Mickey Mouse hat on his had and sat there for what seemed like hours, grinning maniacally at me. And, just like that, my interview with him turned into performance art, and I was left unprepared, disturbed and startled.
After having sat through his play, it was par for the course.