A gifted painter may be thought of as a visual raconteur. Where the unimaginative might seek to depict an apple by reaching for a tube of red pigment, an artist appreciates the myriad colors reflected and emotional responses engendered by the same delectable orb and describes this multifaceted experience on canvas.
Carlyle Brown is a true raconteur. He can spin a yarn with the best of them; the kind of guy whose spirited reenactments of his life experiences hold an audience rapt and render linear time irrelevant.
Brown's performance of "The Fula From America: An African Journey," a work he penned based on his sojourn to the continent of his forebears, is said to last 90 minutes without an intermission. It is experienced as a single exhilarating inhalation of mountain-fresh air.
Brown's a charmer for sure, but charm can only carry a work so long. It's the man's intelligence that proves so engaging, his perception, his objectivity.
The evening begins with the playwright's recollection of those images of Africa propagated by the Tarzan movies of his youth. For an insightful American boy of African lineage, images of an ancestral homeland populated by frightened, superstitious primitive blacks awed by the presence of a patently superior white man in a loincloth proved perplexing.
Understandable to be sure, but Brown's vision transcends the limitations of ethnocentrism.
During the course of the play the author's objectivity reveals the cultural pervasiveness of this subtle undermining of black self-worth in America. "If we're going to be successful in this world we have to be the kind of people white people like," an older family member informs him.
At another point, prior to his voyage of self-discovery, Brown asks, "Am I me or what people think I am?"
The playwright's process of personal evolution enabled by a small inheritance, he departs for Africa; the name Alex Haley resonating as a leitmotiv. "The Fula From America: An African Journey" is Brown's animated recollection of this pilgrimage.
Have no doubts regarding Brown's acting chops, the playwright's ability to perform his tale of adventure. With naught but a couple of stools, a table, knapsack and suitcase, the human drama in which he finds himself enmeshed becomes tangible.
There is dramatic tension with each border crossing, moral outrage with both the enduring repercussions of colonialism and the cavalier disregard for human rights by the black Africans with whom he identifies, and self-effacing humor when he realizes despite the color of his skin he is capable of becoming "The Ugly American."
Further, thanks to his considerable gifts as a storyteller, we come to appreciate the cultural relativity of time.
Though pushed beyond the limits of his patience while waiting for arranged transportation to depart, no such forbearance seemed to be required of the Africans. No patience was required for the event took place in precisely the period anticipated by the locals, however protracted it may have appeared to an American.
Reduced to screaming with frustration, the ever-objective playwright saw himself for what he is. He laughed, we laugh.
Similarly, employing a vivid palette of graphic images, the raconteur makes sure we have no trouble visualizing the flat-bed truck of his conveyance pregnant with its overabundance of cargo both animate and inanimate. We come to understand the Africa of his experience, to feel the dust, the class distinctions, the limits of freedom in these alleged democracies, the fragile stability of so many African governments and their infrastructures.
An ironist, Brown permits us to appreciate the unanticipated and often dire socio-political consequences of something as simple as the predilection for a geographically specific African coffee bean by Starbucks' customers in America.
The experience of the monologue is never burdensome, however; the playwright/actor never hectors. Brown's insights and observations, born as they are of a personality reveling in knowledge for its own sake, leave one feeling uplifted, festive even. This is, after all, a record of growth and achievement.
More importantly, it is a record of human experience, not specifically African American experience.
Those capable of capturing the human drama and the human comedy (there is a great deal of sprightly mirth) with articulated insight and probing intelligence are few.
The pictures they paint possess equal merit for all that approach such imagery with an appetite for enrichment, both cerebral and aesthetic.