In a the most embarrassing situation I’ve had yet this year, I rushed into the Detroit Repertory Theatre ready to review Going to St. Ives, only to find that thedetroiter.com had already reviewed it! I must have looked crestfallen and the Rep was kind enough to let me in. After some negotiating with my editor (who had no idea I’d planned to go to the Rep at all), I agreed to write a commentary, rather than a review, about the production. (For Chris Hill’s review, click here.)
In one sentence, Going to St. Ives is about the rocky intersection of two women: a white, world-famous eye surgeon and the black mother of an African dictator, who conspire to commit murder.
Beyond that one sentence, I was captivated by the subtext of this production. This is less a story about conspiring to commit murder and much more about how each of these women live—and the implications that has for the way they view morality, mortality, safety and loss.
For me, it was a vivid reminder of the emotional maelstrom that came from my two years living in Southern Africa. I lived in a rural area where most people did not have electricity or running water. Life is very raw, there, with few comforts—and an immediacy about death that I found difficult. I could hear it in the matter-of-fact, casual way they spoke of loss. These people were far more comfortable with death than I was.
I grew up the suburbs of Detroit, a place where I could nurture the illusion of safety. Death wasn’t weaving in and out of our lives as we manicured our suburban lawns. My dad had a (then) secure job working in automotive. The biggest crisis I can remember was the family ban on McDonalds—“cheaper to eat at home,” Mom would say. When my grandfather died, it shook my junior-high world for the first time. Even then, there was a realization (or rationalization) that he was old and had lived a good life.
It was his time.
It seemed like the fear of death loomed in Africa. I would get into a taxi and realize, too late, that the driver had only one eye. Or hitch a ride up a steep, winding road through the snowy mountains, astonished to notice the driver reaching under the passenger seat for the last two beers in his six-pack. I remember looking over the edge of a basin at the baby who had been born and died in the same day. Two girls in my village watched their father—and only caregiver—slowly pass away in their home. I attended the funeral of a friend’s brother who, at 23, died after a long and painful sickness.
It wasn’t their time. They lived hard, difficult lives.
Their friends and family mourned them briefly, and then moved on. There were clothes to be washed, goats to be herded, and firewood to be gathered—demands of daily living that refused to be displaced by grief.
The people I met were no more African dictators than I was an affluent eye surgeon. Still, as I watched each character in this play struggling to reconcile her life with the other woman’s reality, I was reminded how hard it can be to reach across that chasm, shaking off bits of yourself as you stretch.
In making that leap, each woman changes because she experienced some small, real part of the other’s life. Knowing that this can happen—albeit, not in the neat, wrapped-up-in-2-hours-so-you-can-go-home-happy kinda way—gives me hope.
Thank you, Detroit Rep, for once again taking on a provocative and challenging piece of work.
Photo Credit: Donna Remer
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