March 18, 2018. 3 pm.
The final performances of LADC’s cutting edge King Lear and my own play, Illspoken, are going on right now and I’m sitting at LAX waiting to board a three-leg flight to the southern part of Africa: a Journey to the Unknown. I have never missed a performance in 12 years of our kids’ shows, but my flight leaves at 4pm. I’m getting texts from students that it’s going great. “Best shows ever.” I am in a new phase of letting go: the teens are growing up and they really don’t need me backstage.
About to step on the plane. Well, three planes – LAX to Frankfurt, to Johannesburg, to Botswana. In Botswana, an hour’s drive from Maun to Motopi, a rural village where I am going to “attempt” to bring Shakespeare into a primary school (a government funded public school). Here, English might be the “official” language, but isn’t spoken in most homes. Setswana is spoken and I haven’t learned a word of it yet. Not even hello. I’ve been sick, and putting on plays. First thing when I land? I will ask how to say hello in Swana.
I sit with many unanswered questions. Will the much revered, much feared, much misunderstood, much adored institution of “Shakespeare” be welcome? This could easily take a nose dive. I have doubts that the way we do Shakespeare in Los Angeles with kids will have the same impact when introduced to Botswana children. But it will be Shakespeare the only way I know how — on its feet and out loud! I’m told the village has no internet, periodic electricity, only huts, donkeys and cows, one very basic store and one “bar” – a room where men play pool and drink beer. I will be the stranger from the industrialized world. Who cares about Shakespeare when they need air conditioners, plumbing, and clean water? What kind of nerve was this? I know one thing without even being in Africa – the idea of connecting people through theater arts can be as vital as any basic physical necessity. People who have “everything,” and people who have “nothing,” both need a reason to get out of bed…
I’m in another world. Today goes down in history as my weirdest day in travel. The second I arrived in J-Burg, I became schooled in the African Way. And how much like a Shakespeare play it really is.
First lesson in the African Way and a Shakespeare Play. Things suddenly go South in one moment, only to resolve themselves soon enough. Weather. Plans. Animal sightings. Losing and finding things. Insect onslaughts. The lesson is to be a part of the show, not to run it.
I got scared in Germany, when I realized that I couldn’t check into Air Botswana online – only in person! I had half an hour to transfer but decided somehow I’d make it. Brooks Kamanakao, my point person for this entire trip – was supposed to be waiting for me at the Maun airport. But my exhilaration of stepping foot in Africa soon turned to abject terror when my luggage didn’t show up in Baggage Claim. I turned to the first woman I saw for help. She says Customs was wrong and by bag is going to Maun and we need to run. We ran so fast I got a side-ache and doubled over, but once she got me to Air Botswana, I felt relief and gratitude – I could never have found it on my own. She was the way.
I’m now at the final leg of this 26 hour journey. Two more hours will be nothing. I’m nearly home free! They speak in Swana, then I can tell it’s not good new. I’m told in curt English the flight is closed. I have to try tomorrow, stay in Johannesburg for the night. My whole world imploded. I had done everything I was told to do. Air Botswana is not caught up with the rest of the world. It’s their fault. Or is it just the African way? I’m on their turf and it’s not my way. I cry, unable to stop. I try to explain there’s a man waiting and a school waiting … and as if she suddenly got the memo, she said…. “Oh, okay.”
At this turn of events, I cried more. And ran more. Now I start laughing, delirious from the up and down turn of events.
I go down an escalator to an outside tram – my fellow passengers poised in beige Safari outfits. Fifteen minutes later, we’re driven to our tiny plane on the tarmac. I sat in front of a British couple – loud and bickering. I hear her, “This is the tiniest plane on the planet.” I hear it. It feels harsh. I want nothing to do with any of them. The flight attendant announced that she’s going to spray insecticide on the plane ceiling (with no human side effects?). They serve us sandwiches: American cheese and turkey (I guess for the Americans and Brits?). I love this “tiny” flight, love being able to see Africa from the air. We land on the tarmac in Maun. It’s hot! More things happen: forms not filled right, glasses lost and found, luggage lost … and not found … at least not that day. Officials snag my passport and state that unless I give them the address of where I’m staying, I can’t be allowed to step outside the airport. I’m officially in a Shakespeare comedy – epic problems – which are hilarious – if only to the spectator!
Then appears the stranger with a sign it’s Brooks – the Fixer! Who had not a care in the world about my hurdles! He could handle the luggage, get my form filled, get me where I’m going (will they let me out?). But as far as the address where I’m staying – even he was stumped. Because in the village of Motopi … well … there are no addresses. No addresses, but soon … if all goes well, the address of the youngest Shakespeare troupe in Africa.