Goethe's Faust Takes a Devilishly Delightful Jaunt to Africa: 3-Day Show Opens KenCen Festival Featuring Continent's Drama, Music, and Dance

By Butters, Patrick | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 30, 1997 | Go to article overview

Goethe's Faust Takes a Devilishly Delightful Jaunt to Africa: 3-Day Show Opens KenCen Festival Featuring Continent's Drama, Music, and Dance


Butters, Patrick, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Dr. Faustus' pathetic quest - under a bemused devil's eye - to add years to his disgusting life has been rehashed as often as the Constitution has been trashed at the hands of politicians.

Yet Friday at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's suicidal alcoholic and his Mephistopheles get reworked again, this time on a different continent.

"Faustus in Africa!" presents Faust as a jaded administrator and his devilish advocate as a squirrelly, bureaucratic clerk. South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company ups the ante in three days of performance with life-size hand puppets of chiseled wood, dark sets, simple charcoal animation and a throbbing, rapping, new-wave rock score.

"It's been an extraordinary juggling act" to fuse the arts involved in "Faustus," says Handspring director William Kentridge by telephone from Johannesburg.

The message, however, is the thing - and one of them is that indeed South Africans - the white apartheid establishment and the African National Congress movement - can unite despite the rocky past for their own common, practical future.

"Thematically, it was a very appropriate play for South Africa, in an inverted way," says Mr. Kentridge, noting that the play was first mounted in 1994 around the time of the country's first free elections.

"The paradox that we were looking at was that the South African election was not a triumph of good over evil but an accommodation of one to the other.

"It wasn't a question of saying `The old apartheid bogymen are out and now the angels are in.' It's saying, `Here we make a contract between us and the devils to work together.' "

* * *

"Faustus in Africa!" helps launch the opening volley of the Kennedy Center's ambitious, multi-year "African Odyssey" festival, which pulls together music, dance and theater from Africa and the African diaspora.

That means we'll see the culture of the world's second largest continent - one-fifth of the Earth's land mass, with the world's third largest population - plopped right into the Grand Foyer.

The 52-nation continent's profound effect on the United States, beyond the divisiveness of slavery and race relations, joyously explodes in musical forms such as jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, hip-hop and rap.

The Kennedy Center brings us the roots, and "African Odyssey" will debut talents such as the Ki Yi M'Bock musical theater company from the Ivory Coast on April 7, traditional griot (storyteller)Alhaji Papa Susso on April 11, and the Washington premiere of "Valley Song," South African playwright Athol Fugard's newest work, on April 29. South African choreographer Vincent Mantsoe's new work, "Sasanka," will be performed April 8 through 10.

"From time to time over the years, we have done different festivals that have focused on different parts of the world," says Kennedy Center President Lawrence J. Wilker, recalling recent celebrations of France, Germany and Australia. "As a national center of the performing arts, the primary mission is to support American performing arts and arts. But our corollary responsibility is to look at those arts around the world.

"We are an immigrant nation . . . We thought it would be an interesting festival to look not only at the richness, beauty and diversity of Africa but also the continuous, tremendous amount of African influence on the American performing arts."

Mr. Wilker wants to present an Africa different from what we see and present in the American news media.

"So much of what we see today is famine, warfare and doubt on the news every night," he says. "Here is a different vantage point - a very rich and different culture."

The first thing a visitor sees in the Grand Foyer is a gripping exhibit of stone sculpture from Zimbabwe. The free display, which opens tomorrow and is on view daily from 10 to 11 a. …

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