Fabulation; or, The Re–Education of Undine
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Lynn Nottage's Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine was published by Dramatists Play Service in 2005, the year after it was originally produced in New York City. It is a riches-to-rags story that follows the apparent decline of Undine from her high-profile job in Manhattan back to the projects where she grew up. Although she loses her status, wealth, and pride, she gains wisdom and self-knowledge that would have eluded her in her prior existence. Facing the people from her past, she must come to accept them and herself as she learns that one can never truly outrun the past.
Although the characters are primarily African-American, and the play is often categorized as an African-American play, most of the content is universal. Nottage may be making a statement about the particular importance of African Americans honoring each other in all social strata and taking pride in their past, but the themes are applicable to many backgrounds and experiences. There is nothing, after all, about Undine that is only relevant to African Americans or even women. She is a person who finds herself in a situation faced by many people the world over and in all eras. The result is an accessible play about confronting uncomfortable personal truths.
Lynn Nottage was born in 1964 in New York City, and grew up in Brooklyn. As of 2007, she
still lived in New York City. Even as a young girl, she enjoyed writing scripts in her personal journal. When she was a teenager, she attended the High School of Music and Art in New York, and then attended Brown University, from which she graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1986. She then went to the Yale School of Drama, where she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree in 1989. Although she worked as a press officer for Amnesty International after graduating, she later returned to writing. It was a short play entry that reignited her desire to write scripts; that play, Poof! won an award. Since then, most of Nottage's career has been in drama. She has worked as an award-winning playwright and as a visiting lecturer in playwriting, and scripts continue to inspire and motivate her creativity. Her plays have been produced worldwide.
After Poof!, Nottage turned her attention back to an article she had read about unpaid soldiers in Mozambique who took matters into their own hands by nabbing hostages. The resulting play was her 1997 work, Mud, River, Stone.
The year 2004 was a busy one for Nottage. One of her plays to see publication was Crumbs from the Table of Joy, which tells the story of a widower and his two daughters who move from Florida to New York to live with family. Set in the 1950s, the African-American family faces personal struggles within the family, along with social struggles in the upheaval of the day. Intimate Apparel was also published in 2004, and tells the story of a long-distance relationship and the challenges that come when the couple marries. Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine, although published in 2005 by Dramatists Play Service, was first produced in 2004. It is an unusual rags-to-riches-to-rags story of an African-American woman who overcomes her humble beginning, becomes arrogant in her success, and takes a dramatic fall back to where she started. Nottage has received a number of prestigious awards for her playwriting, including a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2005.
The play opens with Undine in her office on the phone with a client. Undine runs a public relations (PR) firm, and is working on a client project as her assistant (Stephie) is madly trying to find someone fabulous to accompany her to a major event that night. Undine wants someone who will help her make a great entrance, but Stephie is having trouble making it happen. Undine's accountant is waiting to see her, and hits Undine with terrible news. Her account has been emptied, and she should seriously consider filing for bankruptcy. Undine's husband, Herve, has left and apparently had been slowly taking their money. Shocked, Undine continues to treat everyone around her with little respect and speak tersely to them. The accountant continues to try to get through to her, but Undine digs in her heels, insisting that she will not give up her business. When an Federal Bureau of Investigation agent arrives to talk to Undine about her husband's identity fraud, she is even more shocked. The agent also explains that their research has shown no record of an Undine Barnes Calles until fourteen years prior to that day. He says, "you seem to have materialized from ether." At this point, Page 68 | Top of Article Undine excuses herself and addresses the audience directly. She explains that she came from a humble background, acquired excellent schooling, and broke from her past to become the owner of a "fierce boutique PR firm catering to the vanity and confusion of the African American nouveau riche." She then explains that she met Herve at a party, and she was swept away by his Latin charm and the fact that "he gave me flair and caché." They married, he got his green card, and they led a glamorous life. Then Undine grabs her chest and yells for Stephie.
When the next scene opens, Undine is talking to her doctor and learns that she did not have a heart attack, just a severe anxiety attack. She tells him that her husband left her, she is broke, and she is going to have to close her successful business. The doctor tries to cheer her up with the good news that she is pregnant, to which she responds by addressing the audience directly again. She talks more about her relationship with Herve, how exciting it was when they met and fell in love. Although she had been dating a washed-up rapper, Herve was more sophisticated and more in line with the image she was working so hard to establish for herself.
In the next scene, Undine and a friend, Alison, are talking in Undine's office about the disaster that has befallen Undine. It has already been covered in the paper, and Undine is furious with Herve and humiliated for herself. Alison is the only friend who has not totally abandoned her, and Undine tells the audience that Alison also changed her name when she achieved success and wealth outside of Harlem, where she was reared. When Undine asks if she can stay with Alison, she is subtly turned away with shaky promises of having dinner together soon.
A Yoruba priest arrives in Undine's office, on the advice of the accountant. The priest says that Undine has angered the god Elegba, and he wants her to go home in order to appease him (and give him a thousand dollars and a bottle of rum). Undine decides she has nothing to lose, so she pays the money and makes plans to return to Brooklyn to see her family.
Undine shows up at her parents' house, to the surprise of everyone. Her mother is welcoming, but her brother, Flow, mocks her for distancing herself from them when she was so successful in the city. He is clearly bitter. Undine asks him how his epic poem about Brer Rabbit is going, and although he has been working on it for years, he insists that he is still going to finish it. Undine tells the audience that Flow had been successful in the military, but came back from Desert Storm changed. He now works as a security guard at Walgreen's.
Undine tells her mother she does not know how long she will need to be there, and her mother tells her she will have to sleep with her grandmother. Undine is fine with that. Undine tries to talk to her father, who speaks in a distant way about a man in the neighborhood who solved a prize-winning math problem, but was killed before he could collect the money. Undine turns to the audience and tells about her family. Although she told all of her friends in New York City that her family was killed in a fire, her parents actually had wanted to be on the police force, but were not able to pass the exams. So they became security guards at a university. She strikes up chit-chat with her mother, and when Flow asks about the father of Undine's child, Undine gets defensive because she feels like she has become such a negative stereotype as a single African-American mother in the projects.
Undine goes to the room she will share with her grandmother. Her grandmother talks about how she wishes Undine had not left the family the way she did, and that the tension at home was not as bad as Undine makes it out to be. Then Undine learns that her grandmother has been using heroin to make herself feel better. When Undine asks her mother if she knows, she dismisses the idea. The grandmother convinces Undine to go get more drugs for her, and while Undine is in the middle of the deal, the police arrive. Undine is placed under arrest.
In jail, Undine meets a harsh woman who tries to start something with her, and another woman who tells Undine just to ignore the other inmate. She then asks Undine if this was her first time as a prostitute, and Undine tells her that is not why she is there at all, that it was just a misunderstanding. The inmate then tells Undine how a guy was looking at her wrong and talking nasty to her, so she attacked him and was Page 69 | Top of Article arrested. When Undine goes before the judge, she is sentenced to a drug program that she must attend or face a year in prison.
As the second act opens, Undine is sitting in on one of her drug counseling group sessions. The other addicts are talking about their struggles with addiction, and one man, Guy, tries to encourage them to enjoy the peace of being clean. Undine remarks that the irony is that the descriptions of crack by the addicts make her want to try it. When pushed to share her own story, Undine makes up a story of addiction and even manages to cry. Guy encourages her to look at her pregnancy not as a burden, but as an opportunity to learn. Undine is intrigued by him, and accepts his invitation to a date. On the date, he tells her that he is a security guard at a movie theater, but that he wants to be a firefighter. She tells him that she once had a successful PR firm. He tells her how much he respects her for her battle against addiction and her preparing to be a single mom. He wants to see her again, but she says it is not a good idea. He always stays positive, and Undine tells the audience, "His sincerity is sickening," while also admitting that everything that makes him so different from Herve makes him appealing.
In the courtyard of the projects, Undine runs into two old friends, Rosa and Devora. Although Undine tries to avoid them, they see her and talk briefly about the roads their lives have taken. Rosa is still living in the projects, and Devora has moved into the city after becoming a financial planner. Devora had heard of an Undine who was a PR executive, but does not realize that it was the same Undine. As Devora leaves, Rosa mentions social services, and Undine calls it "the most dreaded part of the system."
The next scene opens with Undine finally at the front of the line at social services, where she confronts a sarcastic and hostile case worker. They argue over forms and the length of the line until Undine escalates the argument to the point that the case worker has Undine taken by paramedics to a psychiatric hospital. They give her antipsychotic drugs she can not take because of her pregnancy, and Undine still has to face social services the next day to get the right form.
Undine eventually makes it through the system and is able to see a doctor. The doctor informs Undine that she is farther along in her pregnancy than she thought. Undine is surprised and also frustrated at the doctor's telling her she should have come in sooner to receive proper prenatal care.
Undine goes to a drug store in an entirely different neighborhood because it is such a nice store. She runs into Stephie, who is working there while she looks for a better job. Undine is embarrassed to see Stephie. When Stephie leaves, Undine finds her vitamins, shoplifts them, and heads home.
Back at home, Flow is talking about a shoplifter at his store that he tried to turn around with a moving speech about making better choices to honor the heritage of African Americans. Then he teases Undine about how big she is and her name, and their mother scolds them both for being childish. Undine is frustrated because someone called for her, but neither parent nor the grandmother remembers anything about the call or the caller. Flow recites his partially completed poem, and the family listens. When he is done, they talk about how they saw the article about Undine where she said her family had died in a fire. She claims it was a misunderstanding, but they know better. Undine addresses the audience with general questions about her life, and then announces that the authorities caught up to Herve.
Undine visits Herve in prison, where he is surprised to find her pregnant. He asks whose baby it is, and she releases her anger on him. She accuses him of being a selfish user, and he accuses her of being closed off to the world.
In her next group counseling session, Undine learns that Guy was the one who called her home. She and Guy talk during someone else's heart-wrenching discussion of addiction, but their conversation soon becomes the center of attention. He tells her that if she wants him to be there for Page 70 | Top of Article her delivery, he will. She admits to being confused and angry with the world, and accepts his offer.
In the next scene, Undine is pushing her baby while Guy coaches her. She is reluctant to bring a child into this world, but when she releases her hesitation, the baby comes out. The last sound in the play is a baby's cry as the lights go down.
Undine Barnes Calles
At thirty-seven, Undine owns a successful boutique PR firm in New York City. She is married to an exciting, sophisticated man, and she seems to have completely overcome her humble beginnings in the Brooklyn projects. She has changed her name from Sharona to the more refined Undine, become a mover and shaker, and has even made up a story about her family dying in a fire, but she learns that she cannot truly change the truth of her past. When her husband turns out to be a criminal and a thief who leaves her alone, pregnant, and penniless, Undine returns home to face the family and community she abandoned. Her pride makes her return difficult, and she is defensive and judgmental. But in crisis, she opens her heart and looks at herself more closely. She then grows strong in a way she could not have understood in her former life.
The play is essentially about Undine's personal growth after realizing that she had built her life among selfish, superficial people who knew little of loyalty or compassion. When her business and money are gone, so are her friends and connections. The reader has to wonder if Undine's pride kept her from looking for a job working for someone else rather than leave the city quietly. Regardless, she returns to the safety net of her family, taking her attitude with her. She clearly feels comfortable at home because she settles in quickly, speaking her mind with no concern for other people's feelings. Her pre-occupation with herself is clear in how quick she is to criticize those she left behind when she went to start her business in the city. She shows little gratitude, and she does not even apologize to them for telling everyone they were dead. They know she was ashamed of them, yet she is unwilling to see her own arrogance. By the end of the play, she has come to understand herself better as a part of her family, and she will be forced to put her selfishness aside because she will have a baby depending on her. The reader cannot help but think that Undine's welcoming Guy into her life is a sign that she is softening and learning from her many mistakes.
Undine's father is emotionally distant and does not engage on a personal level with the other members of the family. He seems to see the world through pessimistic eyes and has given up on the idea of living his dreams. When he is not at work, he is either sitting in a bar with his friends, or sitting at the table at home drinking beer and occasionally talking to his family. He seems to have a broken spirit, and the world has made him cynical and detached.
Flow is Undine's brother. He was successful in military school and in his subsequent military service. However, the time he spent in Operation Desert Storm changed him in a profound way. Undine says that he was never able to reconcile his love of freedom with his love of the uniform. Like his parents, Flow works as a security guard, although he insists that he will one day finish his epic poem about Brer Rabbit. The work he puts in on his poem, and his passion in discussing it, reveal an intellectual side of Flow. He analyzes his world, but unlike his father, he is still determined to make whatever changes he can. Evidence of this is not only in the intellectual exercise of the poem, but in his workplace where he tries to turn a young man's life in a better direction after the young man is caught shoplifting. Flow is somewhat hot-tempered (probably a result of his internal anger), and when the young man does not know who Nelson Mandela is, Flow sends him off with the police. When Undine returns, Flow is resentful and sarcastic; he tries to make her feel awkward and unwelcome. He believes she abandoned the family and only thought of herself when she went to New York City to pursue her dreams, and then came back only when she needed help.
Undine's grandmother has lived a life of hard work as a wife and mother. In her old age, she feels unsatisfied and useless with little to look forward to Page 71 | Top of Article every day. She has become a drug addict, shooting heroin to make the days go by more easily. She is not proud of her drug use, but she does not try to hide it from Undine on Undine's first day back. Undine's grandmother makes her feel guilty and manipulates Undine into going to buy more drugs for her, which lands Undine in jail.
Guy is a sensitive man Undine meets in her drug counseling group session. He is battling his addiction and respects Undine for being a fighter. He works as a security guard at a movie theater, but he dreams of becoming a firefighter. He is insightful, persistent, and sincere. Undine senses early on that he is trustworthy, and she agrees to have him attend the birth of her baby. Perhaps because of his own struggles, he encourages Undine and tries to help her rebuild her belief in herself. Undine remarks how different he is from Herve, and her attraction to Guy shows the audience that Undine is changing and growing.
Herve is Undine's soon-to-be-ex husband. Although exciting, sophisticated, and suave, he has little moral fiber. He uses Undine to get a green card, then puts no effort into their relationship, and is finally imprisoned for fraud. His cruelty is apparent in the fact that before he left Undine, he gave her no warning that he was planning to leave her, and he slowly siphoned all of their money out of their account. Undine is left penniless and pregnant, neither of which moves Herve. His only redeeming quality is that he sees Undine for who she has become, and he is not afraid to tell her. In this, he challenges her to look at herself honestly.
Undine's mother struggles to keep the family together in the face of adversity and broken dreams. She and her husband had hoped to join the police force when they were young, but had to settle for jobs as security guards. Undine's mother finds a level of contentment in her home in the projects by settling into denial about certain things (like her own mother's drug use), and holding onto hope about others (such as her family living harmoniously).
See Undine Barnes Calles
Stephie is Undine's executive assistant in the first scene of the play. She is young, stylish, and a good worker. While she does not seem to be overly ambitious or career-oriented, she is committed to finding work that will take her somewhere. She seems to have good instincts about the workplace, as she was a valued employee to Undine, and then when she works at the drugstore, she understands the importance of getting along with her coworkers. Unlike Undine, Stephie does not judge people, although this is partly because she is fairly self-absorbed; when Undine comes into her drugstore, Stephie is friendly and inquisitive, but never says anything to make Undine feel embarrassed.
Nottage introduces the theme of duality in Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine most obviously through the protagonist, Undine. Nottage reinforces this theme in other ways throughout the play, as well. In Undine, Nottage has created a character who is effectively two people. Her internal struggle comes from the fact that she only wants to be one person-the one she created. Still, she is Sharona (her given name, the one that her family and friends knew her by when she was young), the girl who grew up in the Brooklyn projects, where her family struggled and she saw despair, violence, and hopelessness. She is also Undine, the successful businesswoman in New York City who is powerful, smart, and wealthy. Undine was created by Sharona when Sharona was determined to sever all ties with her former life, even to the extent of inventing a tragic story about her family dying in a fire. In the second to last scene of the play, Undine tells Guy that her old self was killed in order for her new self to exist. She knows that she is two people in one mind and body. What she learns, however, is that the duality of the truth of her life is inescapable. She may have become Undine through hard work and intention, but she will always be the product of Sharona's experiences and roots.
Nottage supports the theme in other characters and situations in the play. For example, Flow is a man with a divided nature. He has deep insight into duality in the hearts and reactions of others. It seems to run in the family because when Undine asks her father how he is, he responds, "I is and sometimes I ain't."
The Pitfalls of Attempting to Escape the Past
At the heart of Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine is a message about the impossibility of removing oneself from the past. The past is the truth, and so it can not be changed. Undine tries to change her past by reinventing herself and telling lies about her family, but none of that changes the truth of what her past is. Nottage addresses the past on another level, too. While Undine cannot change what the past was, neither can she outrun it. Her circumstances take a dramatic downturn, and she is left with no alternative but to return literally to her past. A grown woman, she must swallow her pride and return to her family's house, depending on them for support. At first, Undine regards her circumstances as somewhat tragic and speaks fatalistically: "I think I'm officially part of the underclass. Penniless. I've returned to my original Negro state, karmic retribution for feeling a bit too pleased with my life." She is ultimately unable to leave the past behind for good; her situation forces her to accept, learn, and grow.
As with the theme of duality, Nottage takes care to reinforce the theme of the past through the words of other characters. When Flow tells his family about the young shoplifter he lectured in an effort to help him see a better way, he says that "there ain't no greater crime than abandoning your history." In a group drug counseling session, one of the addicts talks about the pain of breaking past habits, and he says, "I will no longer inhabit the places of my past." This is the other side of the theme. Where Undine attempted to disconnect from her past for reasons of status and pride, the addict wants a brighter, cleaner future and wants to break from his destructive past. In his case, he is right to turn from his past. But it is critical that he never forget it, which is what he and Undine have in common.
While Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine is not intended to be an anthem to feminism, it does depict some important feminist truths about
modern society. First, Undine is a strong, independent, successful businesswoman who builds her public relations firm. She does this by her mid-thirties, and is taken seriously in her field. This indicates that a woman (and an African-American woman, at that) has access to opportunities today. Second, the character of Inmate #2 shows that women are no longer willing to be objectified and oppressed by chauvinistic attitudes. This woman is in prison because a man was talking to her and treating her like a demeaned sexual object, and she physically assaulted him to protect not only herself, but to teach him not to treat women like that. Recounting the incident, she tells Undine what she said to him, "I work from 9 to 5 at Metrotech, my man, don't you look at me like a 'ho, don't you talk to me like a 'ho, don't you disrespect me like a video 'ho." She tells Undine, "Now, he gonna think twice 'fore he place a hand on another woman. Believe it." She is not willing to stand for being objectified when she has worked so hard to make a respectable life for herself and her family.
The pace of Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine is rapid and at times dizzying. This is intentional, as Nottage explains in the Author's Note before the play begins. Indeed, she intends the play to move from scene to scene without blackouts. This makes the action of the play move quickly and keeps the audience engaged with little time to process the action and characterization of one scene to the next. Still, the play is tightly written, and the characters' decisions and reactions are consistent with the foundation Nottage lays as the play develops. But where other plays give audience members an opportunity to anticipate outcomes, this play keeps their attention focused on the "present" in the play without having a chance to worry about its "future."
From the perspective of characterization, the rapid pace makes the audience sympathetic to Undine. Just as she is swept away by the rapid, uncontrollable change in her life, so is the audience. They understand better how she must feel, especially since she is in most scenes. The audience sees her go immediately from her office to a doctor's exam room, from a street corner to a jail, and from a group counseling session to the delivery room. It is all happening so fast, that the audience can not help but have a level of understanding as to how Undine must feel being tossed around in the wake of disaster. Seeing her grow into maturity, wisdom, and compassion is then all the more impressive. By the end, the audience is more likely to respect Undine and have hope for her future because of the way she has handled such rapid, unexpected change.
Nottage uses symbolism in a very subtle, natural way in the play. Perhaps the strongest symbol in the play is the job of security guard. Undine's mother, father, brother, and potential boyfriend are all security guards. Sometimes the characters are seen in their uniforms, and sometimes (as with Guy) it is only indicated. This is significant because the two words "security" and "guard" should give her an indication where to place her trust. Security guards come to represent family, love, and acceptance for Undine. These are the people who will stick by her side and encourage her. In her previous life, she would never have hobnobbed with anyone in such a lowly position, but the people she chose in that life abandoned Page 74 | Top of Article her when it was convenient to do so. The people in the security guard uniforms (sort of a twist on the white cowboy hats that showed who the good guys were in Westerns—where the bad guys wore black hats) are the ones who are actually loyal and true.
Another symbol is Undine's pregnancy itself. Unprepared for motherhood, Undine grapples with her situation. At one point, she talks about how to solve it as a problem rather than how to fold it into her life. At another point, she sees it as something that makes her a stereotypical single, black mother in the projects. Regardless, the pregnancy is what contributes to her return home and what makes her compassionate and understanding to other overwhelmed women. In the waiting room of her doctor's office in Brooklyn, she has compassion for a scared young pregnant woman and takes her hand, admitting that she is also scared. The pregnancy symbolizes Undine's share in humanity. She is joined with other women in a unique way, and she takes part in a universal human experience. She is not better than those she thought she had surpassed; she is part of their community and experience.
Another symbol is Devora's business card. Devora has risen above her past in the projects, but has not cut herself off from her roots. She still visits and maintains relationships from her past. As a successful financial planner, she is actually attempting to help other women in her community instead of denying them altogether, as Undine had done. When Devora gives Undine her card, it gives her a slight paper cut, "just enough to draw blood." That cut from the card shows that Undine's thinking had been misguided, and it also shows that she has fallen so far that she is now on the receiving end of charity from a friend. The card, taken by Undine, symbolizes her newfound humility.
Nottage uses the theatrical technique of asides as an effective way to fill in the back story to allow the audience access to Undine's private thoughts. Asides are when a character speaks directly to the audience without the other characters hearing it. Like monologues (which are spoken by characters who are alone, as if the character is talking to himself or thinking out loud), asides let the audience know what the character's true thoughts and feelings are. Undine shares with the audience certain chapters from her past, along with her perspectives on them. She also speaks directly to the audience to reveal what she is thinking about another character or what her hidden reaction to something is. It builds trust and intimacy between the character and the audience.
Since the mid-1990s, the number of single-parent homes has remained steady. Of all households in the United States, about nine percent are headed by single parents; this is almost double what it was in 1970. Most single parents are mothers because of personal and court preferences. Census Bureau statistics for 1995 revealed that almost two-thirds of all African-American family groups with children were headed by single parents, and the numbers of those headed by fathers is extremely low. The story behind the statistics is that there are more than ten million single mothers (of all races) striving to support themselves and their children, all while acting as both mother and father on a day-to-day basis. In fact, there are almost twice as many single mothers as stay-at-home mothers.
The challenges to the single mother can be overwhelming. For low-income families, the possibility of higher education or private schooling is out of the question. Faced with a family to rear and a basic education at best, these single mothers must find the best job (or jobs) they can, work long hours, pay a lot of what they earn to child care, all while providing guidance and nurturing at home. For these reasons, many families rely on grandparents to help bring up the children.
Professional Career Opportunities for African-American Women
African-American women have faced challenges in the workplace because of their race and gender. While women have worked and fought to have access to the same opportunities and pay, so have racial minorities. Gradually, the business world has been opened to African-American women, but some areas are still undergoing growing pains. Part of the problem is education. For many urban areas with large African-American populations, public schooling struggles to keep up with the increasing demands of the modern
world. There are often fewer resources, teachers struggling with discipline, and overcrowded classrooms. As a result, it can be difficult to get a good education, even for motivated students. Further, because of their family situations, many students have to work jobs or care for younger siblings in addition to keeping up with school work.
Besides educational issues, it can be difficult for young African-American women to get their feet in the door in businesses because of a lack of contacts. Networking can be a critical part of a young person's career. Many people network through family connections, fraternities and sororities, and internships. As more African-American women are achieving career success, they are making a focused effort to encourage and support other young women coming into the workplace. There are also scholarships and other programs to help African-American women attend college and even go on to graduate or professional schools. But as of 1996, only 22 percent of African-American women held managerial or professional specialty jobs. The captains of industry—Donald Trump, Bill Gates, Martha Stewart, and others—are still primarily white, and mostly male.
African-American Women Writers
Just as African-American women are gaining influence and status in other areas of business and society, they are also gaining prominence in American literature. Continuing a tradition that began and was grown through the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Gwendolyn Brooks, today's African-American women writers have shown impressive staying power. Writers such as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Alice Walker have been writing and lecturing for more than twenty years. In fact, Walker won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, and Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place won the National Book Award the same year. Picking up the baton was Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. But Morrison is far from alone at the top of the literary world. Other African-American Page 76 | Top of Article women whose voices have gained acclaim in the 1990s and into the 2000s include Edwidge Danticat and Pearl Cleage.
The critical reception of Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine has been mixed. While some critics praise Nottage's clever, fast-paced look at the futility of trying to escape one's past, other critics feel that the play lacks thematic depth and well-rounded characterization. For instance, Nicholas de Jongh, writing in the Evening Standard calls the play a "slick, modern, urban morality" play. American Theater critic Randy Gener describes the play as a "surreal fusion of Absolutely Fabulous; and a classic trickster tale" before labeling it a "very tall cautionary urban parable." Gener concludes: "Spiritually, Fabulation is an American descendant of the West Africa fable, whose animating verve lies in the psychic concept of nyama (energy of action), in which the erotics of laughter convey a moral theme: The past is never truly past."
In Variety, reviewer Charles Isherwood criticizes Nottage for not revealing enough about Undine's psyche. He also notes that Nottage does not "dwell at length on her pointed observations about the fragile perches of ambitious black Americans in the social hierarchy." Isherwood further finds characters such as Undine's grandmother a little far-fetched, explaining: "Nottage sometimes stretches a little too far into absurdity to subvert stereotype." Still, he praises the play for not being too heavy-handed in its moralizing and for being stylistically strong. He writes that "the play's snappy pacing and episodic narrative ensure that neither its cartoonish moments nor its sentimental asides drag the play down." Frank Scheck, writing in Hollywood Reporter, offers a different view of the play's pacing, describing it as "a series of brief, sketch-like scenes that prove dizzying in their variety and density," and adding that "Nottage's writing is not always quite as sharp as it aspires to be."
But Nottage's critics give Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine credit where they see it due. For all the flaws that he sees in the play, Scheck nonetheless praises the play as a whole because "the social messages are imparted with an antic, unpretentious wit and style." Indeed, Isherwood also observes that "the play settles on a gently satiric tone that allows us to catch glimpses of the complicated human beings shackled to their clichéd roles in American culture."
Jennifer A. Bussey
Bussey is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she delves deeply into the comparisons between Voltaire's Candide and Nottage's Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine.
There have been many comparisons made between Lynn Nottage's play Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine and Voltaire's classic novel Candide. Such a comparison requires looking closely at the protagonists of the two works, the storylines, and the underlying messages in each. Two writers could hardly be more different than Nottage (an African-American woman who was raised in Brooklyn and has come into her own as a modern playwright) and Voltaire (a product of the French Enlightenment who was an intellectual and political rebel known for his sharp wit; the French Enlightenment was an eighteenth-century philosophical movement that exalted the power of human reason and sought greater liberty and rights through social and political reform). Thus, a comparison of their works is an intriguing undertaking.
First, a brief summary of Candide is in order for those who have not read it, or have not read it recently. In Candide, the main character is a young, naiïve man who meets calamity after calamity, all the while spouting the optimistic philosophy of his mentor and companion, Pangloss. According to this philosophy, the world is the best of all worlds, and everything that happens must necessarily be for the best because it takes place in the best of all worlds. Thus, when Candide and Pangloss see another of their companions drown trying to save another man, they do nothing to stop it because Pangloss declares that the sea itself was put there for that very moment. The novel is rich with satire and irony, and the main characters encounter horrible circumstances and wretched people, smiling through it all under the banner of optimism. In the end, Candide buys a farm and abandons Pangloss's philosophy (although Pangloss sticks Page 77 | Top of Article to his guns), but merely substitutes the beliefs of another man instead. Candide is ultimately a static character who never takes a stand on his own or learns to think for himself. He is, however, a man of his word. Throughout the story, he is in pursuit of Cunegonde, the woman he loves (although it is really no more than an infatuation). When she becomes ugly and loses all of her charms, his love vanishes. Still, he marries her because that is what he agreed to do when they were both in love.
Like Candide, Undine mismanages her life by adhering to a hollow philosophy. Candide's optimism never did him any good, and only made matters worse. Undine believes that severing ties with her past and reinventing herself will make her the person she has created. This belief does her no good because she ends up face to face with the very past she ran so hard to escape. Both characters delude themselves into thinking the world is what they want it to be, but only Undine learns that there is another truth outside of her delusions. Candide never quite learns this. Candide stays basically selfish and immature, whereas Undine shows signs of personal growth and wisdom. Not only does she allow Guy to become a part of her life despite the fact that he is everything she avoided in her New York City life, but when Undine is in the waiting room with another pregnant woman, she sets aside her bruised ego (at being called old) and reaches out for the young woman's hand to admit that she is just as scared. Undine rejects her selfish impulses so that she can extend humanity and compassion to a young, scared woman.
Undine also shows a capacity to be open and vulnerable in love. Candide is written as a Page 78 | Top of Article caricature, so it only stands to reason that his story lacks real emotion or personal insight. Candide's experience of love is full-blown infatuation to the point of obsession, which has little to do with genuine emotions. Candide never really knows Cunegonde, he sets her on a pedestal, like Don Quixote does with Dulcinea in Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote. The romance is much more about the pursuit and the excitement than it is about really knowing a person and loving her based on a substantial relationship. But Candide is so clueless about love that he agrees to go ahead and marry Cunegonde even after he loses interest in her. He has no concept of marriage, and he is too lazy to consider that he might truly fall in love some day with another woman. Undine ditches her washed-up rapper boyfriend when she is swept up in the romance of Herve. He is exotic and sophisticated, and the romance is enough for her. This is akin to Candide's feelings toward Cunegonde. But when Herve turns out to be a thief who abandons Undine, she sees him clearly and opens herself up to another man, Guy. The last scene of the play shows Guy coaching Undine through the delivery of her baby. When the play ends with the baby's cry, Nottage suggests that the three of them will be a family. Undine has been honest with Guy, and he has been honest with her. They have accepted each other and respect each other, so the relationship is based on something abiding. There is hope for Undine that is lacking for Candide.
Another important element to compare is the storylines of the two works. In both cases, the characters start out comfortable, content, and living with wealth and status. In short order, both are thrown from their lifestyles and sent on a journey. Candide is in search of a new life (though he does not know what he is seeking) and Cunegonde, and Undine is searching for a new life (though she does not know what she is seeking, either). Both characters find themselves in a rapid descent, encountering dangerous characters, becoming the victims of misunderstanding, and going through outrageous experiences. And while Candide's misadventures take him all over the world, Undine's misadventures in Brooklyn are so varied and extreme that they seem to be unfolding in a large setting. So both characters are bumped around from misadventure to misadventure, moving toward an undetermined goal. But when Candide lands, he is in a calmer setting, having learned almost nothing, while Undine is in a more demanding setting, having learned quite a lot. This is an important lesson because it shows how two very different people can go on similar journeys and, based on their personalities and willingness to learn, have completely different outcomes.
The last area to look for comparisons is in the messages, or themes, of each work. Candide is designed to show the futility of ridiculous philosophies and the importance of trustworthy authority. The novel shows corrupt or misguided authority in every realm—religious, political, military, and interpersonal. People are misled, given false hope, victimized, and even killed in the wake of unfit authority. While Candide and Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine both depict the negative outcomes of foolish philosophy, they part ways on the issue of authority. Undine's life has been about removing herself from under the authority of anyone but herself. In her story, there is almost no authority figure with any power over her except for the police to arrest her and the court to enforce a drug rehabilitation requirement. But this depiction of authority is different from Voltaire's because the police in Undine's story are fair and right in their application of the law. In other areas of her life, such as family and business, however, Undine is her own authority. In that sense, the reader might draw a parallel because Undine's authority over her own life has been so lacking. This is so subtle, however, that is unlikely that Nottage is intentionally making a comment about authority. Similarly, Nottage's themes of duality and the past do not readily apply to Voltaire's work.
Deep comparisons between Nottage's Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine and Voltaire's Candide are difficult to find or seem somewhat contrived. On the surface, however, there are interesting parallels between Nottage's play and Voltaire's fable. They both have larger-than-life protagonists whose lives take a series of twists and turns in their descents. Both portray the trouble that comes from adhering to a misguided and delusional belief system. Both also show the importance of learning from life's lessons and being willing to mature. In these cases, it is valuable to realize that such lessons are so universal that they appear in very different works by very different writers in very different historical contexts.
Source: Jennifer A. Bussey, Critical Essay on Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, the critic gives a critical analysis of Nottage's work.
Lynn Nottage is a playwright whose work is intended to lend a voice to the experience of the African-American woman. As a child growing up in Brooklyn, New York, she began writing plays in her journal. As she recalled in an interview posted on the Kentucky Educational Television Web site, "I think for me the journey begins downstairs at the kitchen table of my house. Down there was a gathering place for so many women. To come home from school, and my grandmother would be sitting at the table, and my mother would be sitting at the table. The woman from across the street would be sitting at the table. And they all had stories to tell. They were nurses, teachers; they were activists; they were artists. And I think that is where I got all of my inspiration as a writer."
Seeking a world beyond Brooklyn, Nottage attended the High School of Music and Art in New York, then went on to Brown University and Yale Drama School. After graduation, she worked as national press officer for Amnesty International and gave up creative writing for some time. Sitting down to work on an entry for a short-play competition, she produced the work Poof! in one sitting. The drama, which deals with abuse against women, won an award, and Nottage decided to rededicate herself to writing plays.
Nottage's play Mud, River, Stone had its origin in an article the author read about some demobilized soldiers in Mozambique who took hostages because they were never paid for their services. Nottage used the incident as the setting for her drama about an upper-class African-American couple who travel to Africa for a second honeymoon. They want to search for their roots, but instead, they find themselves taken hostage. Symbolically, Nottage sought to portray her own search for Africa and its meaning. Back Stage reviewer David Sheward wrote that the play starts out as "clever comedy," but declines into "conventional melodrama." Variety reviewer Robert L. Daniels also felt that the play loses focus, but he also had praise for the early scenes, in which "the characters are clearly defined, the landscape picturesque, the dialogue laced with humor." Reflecting on her experience in creating this play, Nottage told the Kentucky Public Television interviewer: "I most certainly will write more about Africa. I find when I have spare time I read nonfiction books about the Congo. I am fascinated by the Congo, fascinated by the politics of that region and the legacy of colonialism. By the brutality. I think some of that comes out of working at a place like Amnesty International—I studied the abuses of countries. The Congo was one of the most aggressive violators of human rights."
Crumbs from the Table of Joy is set during the 1950s and concerns two teenaged girls whose conservative, widowed father moves with them from Florida to New York City, where they all move in with their free-thinking aunt. To their surprise, their father soon comes home with a new wife—a white, German woman. Nottage explained to the Kentucky Educational Television interviewer that she wrote the play in part to try to understand the extreme changes that were taking place in society at that time: "Crumbs from the Table of Joy is about a displaced Southern family smack in the center of New York City, in the 1950s, trying to cope with those changes. Coping with integration, trying to cope with big-city ideals with a small-town sensibility." Reviewing the play for Back Stage, William Stevenson called it "at times moving and at times slowgoing," but concluded: "the action picks up in the second act, with more conflict and a stirring ending."
In Intimate Apparel Nottage portrays a plain, hard-working seamstress who creates deluxe lingerie for her clients. Although the garments she sews are imaginative and erotic, in her personal life the woman is repressed and has few close relationships. She begins a correspondence with a man working on the Panama Canal, and he eventually comes to New York, where they marry. Their real-life relationship turns out to be very different from what either imagined it would be, and the second act of the play deals with their disappointments and the way they cope with them. Reviewing the play for Hollywood Reporter, Jay Reiner stated that it is a "seemingly simple and straightforward piece of stagecraft that gradually takes on a life and meaning all but impossible to resist." National Catholic Reporter contributor Retta Blaney described it as "simple yet lovely."
Explaining her mission to the interviewer for Kentucky Public Television, Nottage said: "I think that the African-American woman's voice is Page 80 | Top of Article important because it is part of the American voice. But you would not know that by looking at TV or films. You would think that we do not exist. And part of my mission as a writer is to say, ‘I do exist. My mother existed, and my grandmother existed, and my great-grandmother existed, and they had stories that are rich, complicated, funny, that are beautiful and essential.’ And the stories have become the myth of America.… I want people to know that my story, that of the African-American woman, is also the American story."
Source: Gale, "Lynn Nottage," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2006.
De Jongh, Nicholas, "Critic's Choice Top Five Plays," in the Evening Standard, March 10, 2006, p. 48.
Gener, Randy, "Conjurer of the Worlds: From Richly Imagined Epochs to Unsparing Satires, Lynn Nottage's Roving Imagination Channels History's Discards into Drama," in American Theatre, Vol. 22, No. 8, October 2005, pp. 22-26.
Isherwood, Charles, "Downward Spiral for Gotham Diva," in Variety, Vol. 395, No. 6, June 21, 2004, p. 45.
Nottage, Lynn, Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine, Dramatists Play Service, 2005.
Scheck, Frank, Review of Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine, in Hollywood Reporter, Vol. 384, No. 31, July 6, 2004, p. 18.
Cleage, Pearl, Flyin' West, Dramatist's Play Service, 1995.
Cleage is among America's foremost contemporary African-American women writers and playwrights. This play tells the story of African-American women pioneers in the old West and their fight to create a life of fulfillment and freedom.
Curry, Cuthrell, Making the Gods in New York: The Yoruba Religion in the African American Community, Routledge, 1997.
Curry reviews the growing presence and influence of Yoruba culture in religion in the United States. In addition to a historical review, Curry informs the reader about Yoruba beliefs and rituals.
Hall, Roger, Writing Your First Play, Focal Press, 1998.
Hall is a professor of creative writing. Here, he covers the basics of characterization, plot development, setting, and other important elements, along with examples and writing exercises for students new to the process.
Krasner, David, American Drama 1945-2000: An Introduction, Blackwell Publishing, 2006.
Krasner provides an overview of American theater beginning with the conclusion of World War II and finishing at the end of the twentieth century. He covers major plays and playwrights, taking time to discuss major influences and breakthroughs.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3420900015