Nanook in the Sahara

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by Dexter Zollicoffer

Am I really here?

It all started with the subject line in an e-mail: Looking for Participants for the 6th Annual International Festival of University Theater. The subject sounded fine, but it was the location that hit the spot: Tangier, Morocco. I remember a party where a friend got drunk and spoke over and over again about visiting Tangier…she’d seen one of those Globe Trekker shows and they’d done a shoot in Tangier.  She kept drunkenly asking me if I’d go with her. I thought: right.  I’ll just as soon travel to the moon as go to Tangier.

Fast forward a couple of years, and signed, sealed, delivered; this is really happening.  The festival committee has accepted my submission of Ma Fille, Ma Naturelle:  The Story of St. Louise de Marillac. Ma Fille, Ma Naturelle explores the early life of St. Louise, founder of The Daughters of Charity in 17th C. France.  The play chronicles her experiences as the illegitimate child of a wealthy landowner, her marriage and eventual widowhood, and her accepting St. Vincent DePaul as her spiritual advisor and forming The Daughters of Charity.

A thousand questions run through my mind. How will they understand my language? How will I understand their language? Will I eat with my hands like I’d seen in a scene from the movie Babel? According to the festival program, we’ll be performing along with universities from Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Egypt, France, Spain, Morocco, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates.  Deeper questions begin to arise. Am I implying anything by bringing a show about a Catholic saint to an audience that will be primarily Muslim? I’m not a missionary. Or worse, has my Americanness somehow lead me to ask that question.

After a long flight (which I don’t see as a negative, because I sleep an anything that moves), we arrive in Casablanca to meet Khaled, our collaborator from DePaul’s Office of Global Initiatives.  We’ll be taking a four-hour train ride to Tangier, and we’ve got some time before, “All Aboard,” so we take Khaled’s suggestion and decide to try sweet mint tea (a Moroccan specialty) at a nearby café.

I sit, sip, and watch. It’s nothing like the images I’d seen of the Arab Spring or the hunt for Osama. Actually, it was all quite ordinary. Young people exchanging sly smiles, men drinking either coffee or tea, and…chain smoking.

I kept looking for the Sahara out my train window. I knew I was in the wrong part of the country, but I hoped that somewhere off in the distance I’d see beige sandy plains or maybe even a nomadic Bedouin leading his camel to water.

Yes, I saw a few cows, goats, and poverty from my window, but I’d seen all that before.  Someone else’s poverty always seems a little poorer than that of my youth, and it felt disrespectful to stare too intently. Grown men and women stood in their own thoughts as the train whished by.

When we arrived in Tangier, it was past dark. We were met by the festival organizing committee in a bus that was way too big for the cast of four, Khaled, and me. There, we met one of our guides, Chaima, who stunned us all when she spoke English like she’d lived in the U.S. as a child and only recently returned to her native language. Chaima wanted to catch up on all her favorite American hip hop stars:  Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Beyonceé. I tried desperately to remember the little Arabic Khaled had taught me on the train. When I stumbled through the word for “thank you,” Chaima, annoyed, said, “Please, speak English.”

Before breakfast on the first day, I’d met the troupes from Saudi Arabia and Egypt.  I’d suddenly acquired the name, “Mr. Morgan.”  It appears Morgan Freeman is very popular in North Africa, and with my English, age, skin color and hair texture…I was probably the closest to the real Mr. Morgan they’d ever come.  I took it all as a great compliment and even felt a surge of pride in thinking of myself as an African and as an American (however culturally distant I may be from the African part) now that I really was in Africa.

The week was jam-packed. Our days started around 7am and ended sometime around 11:00pm. You could tell the time by the sound of the drums. Drumming in the morning after breakfast. Drumming in evening after dinner. Drumming and singing on every bus ride to and from the theatre. We were seeing three to four shows a day while squeezing in sightseeing with constant plotting by the cast to stroll the hypnotic Moroccan markets

And then, there were the shows! All interesting. All intense. And all in Arabic. I felt lucky when I got a seat beside Khaled or one of our two interpreters, Chaima and Fatima. What surprised me the most was the humor and physical comedy present in many of the selections. Constantine University from Algeria presented a piece titled, March des Femmes. In it, the actors (men and women) would do double takes to the audience, pratfalls and a considerable amount of cross dressing and gender bending. The cardboard set evoked a cartoonish world.

Because of the language barrier, I’d often miss the joke, but the rest of the audience would erupt in chaotic laughter and applause. When discussing a show after dinner, while the mint tea was being poured and the Gauloises or the famed American Marlboros were shared, I learned that many of the plays had a definite political backdrop. For example, the troupe from Egypt did a farcical piece about three brothers confronting each other in the waiting room of a mental health clinic. When the  mother enters, she scolds each of her sons, and then dies. I came to understand what the larger audience understood. The mother figure represented Egypt, the country, and the sons were the various factions fighting for control after the fall of Mubarak.  The Arab Spring was not some televised event in a far off land for many of these performers. It was personal. It permeated the work and reminded me of the power of theatre to confront the social issues of the day.

Just like any show, concert, or unemployment benefit, everything comes to an end. Yes. Our last evening in Morocco was filled with hugs, promises to connect on Facebook, and tears. I sat on the bus we’d co-hired with the Algerian troupe to drive us through the night to Casablanca. I tried to reflect on the week. I was sure I’d changed somehow, but at a lost as to what it all meant.

It was odd that I was having a problem sleeping. The bus was moving, the Moroccan sky was dark, and I had a full belly. Sleep should have been a given. Suddenly, my seat mate, Soufyane, jumped up and ran to the bags thrown in the back of the bus. He returned with old coats, blankets, and thick towels and began distributing them to the others on the bus. When he returned to our seat, he carefully laid a jacket across my chest and whispered, “Mr. Morgan, this is for you. To protect you from cold.”

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Dexter Zollicoffer serves as the Diversity Advisor at The Theatre School and is a recipient of the 2011-2012 Sprit of DePaul award.  He is  the writer/director for DePaul’s Mile Walker summer acting troupe in partnership with the Office of Diversity Education. The Mile Walkers perform during Premiere DePaul summer orientations and provide summer employment for up to 12 undergraduate students through the creation of a show that focuses on culture and identity. Each year Dexter writes and directs a celebratory performance based on the life and Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and has solidified a partnership with DePaul’s Center for Intercultural Programs to perform the original piece during their annual Martin Luther King, Jr. prayer breakfast.  He is also an actor most recently seen in Dartmoor Prison at Goodman Theatre and on ABC’s Chicago Fire.

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