Botswana – Los Angeles Drama Club

Shakespeare in Africa #3: Becoming a Different Person.

Shakespeare in Africa #3: Becoming a Different Person.

I am still headed to a rural African village called Motopi where I will live by myself and work in a local school teaching Shakespeare (what I do at home). I’ve done many daring and rash things in my life. And a lot of very strange and difficult things have happened to me. I survived my childhood and adulthood and it was rarely easy. I don’t do things because they’re easy. Easy never interested me. Well…it’s starting to. But for now, I am programmed to do hard things and to teach others to do them too.

L. A. Drama Club: Our Theatre Company makes Hard look Easy.

I am on my second Luftansa flight from Frankfurt to Johannesburg with one more German woman sitting next to me (German seat partner: mandatory for all international flights). We left off where the German seat partner was balking at my decision to book two African flights within 40 mintues of each other. I don’t have the mental bandwidth to explain — not my decision to book the two flights — yes, my decision to trust an online booking agency. I am realizing that there is no way to “check in” online to Air Botswana, but in person. Old school. I have half an hour to transfer in J-Burg and I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m stuck here for 8 more hours and can do nothing but…

Start making a list of what is emerging as The African Way for Westerners.

AW#1: You Think You “Got This.” You don’t.

“I got this.” A popular phrase. So American. Being a rugged individualist, totally self contained, on my own…gets prasied and rewarded, even though it’s an illusion. We urban dwellers are deluded. We believe we’re independent but one strike of an earthquake or hurricane would prove otherwise. I start to consider, “I don’t Got This at all.” Interdependence seems more the African Way. Tribal thinking makes more sense! I know that am going to need help over there. I don’t like the feeling. It means putting others out, being dependent, and trusting. A thought occurs to me: Not Trusting is a sign of privilege. The luxury of not trusting….

Johannesburg Airport. I am walking off the plane and am hit with a blast of hot air — “Welcome to the Land of the Protea.”

A preview of what is to come. Motopi School.

All the self help, 12-step, therapy and bone-crushing life lessons I’ve learned did not bring me the kind of catharsis as did stepping foot on African Soil and allowing that blast of hot air to hit my face. Easy and swift. A new voice. Not the Troubleshooter, not the Naysayer, not the Imposter. This is a wise voice.

You are different. You will never be the same person who fussed all the way here. You have done the work to be ready for this moment. And you get to have it.

After that sets in, I am told to go get my suitcase in baggage claim. I look around in wonder. When last suitcase tumbles onto the carousel, it isn’t mine. I show a woman who works here. She says, no. Your bag has gone to Botswana. A young airport worker looks at my ticket, then at me.

AW #2 : Sometimes things change, and you need to run.

She runs, I run…so fast and so far, I get a side-ache. J-burg is a massive airport. We finally make it to the Air Botswana gate. I could never have found this on my own. She was the only way. Now she is talking to the Check In Lady. There is a problem. A big problem. I am told….

“The flight is closed. You are too late. Come back tomorrow.”

Like making it to Oz …and having the little window open and slam. But this isn’t Oz, it’s Johannesburg. I do not know what I’m doing here. I have a man waiting, a place, a school. I can barely form words.

“There’s a man waiting …he is my only chance. There’s a school the expects me…I’ve been traveling 24 hours…I don’t know what to…”

This is not like me. I always know what to do. I’m the I Know What to Do Girl when it comes to traveling. “I got this.” The Check in Lady looks at me…I’m crying. To make it this far and then…fall apart.

AW #3: If You Fall Apart, Sometimes the Rules are Bended.

“Okay. Go. Just go.”

She just single-handedly changed the rules based on…heartstrings? The woman who ran me over there says, “Hurry! We have to run again.” And we do: down the escalator and out the doors to the outside. To a van! My face still wet from crying, I am now laughing. I’m being gaslit by the universe and it’s funny. My drops of tears, I’ll turn into sparks of fire. And I will.

I hug the airport worker who changed the fate of this journey. Years holding onto the idea that abandoment was the norm for me…she somehow erased it. Gone in one final act. I’m feeling quite alive. My first half hour in Africa included a sprinting marathon, a nervous breakdown and two serious plot twists.

Boarding Air Botswana tram, I now meet my fellow passengers on this flight to Maun. Australian and British tourists in crisp Safari costumes…er, outfits. They look like they’re playing the part of wealthy tourists on Safari for a movie shoot, when I realize…. they are wealthy toursits on Safari. We board the plane and I am next to a bickering British couple. “This is the tiniest plane on the planet.” I might not have her money, but I grin, just glad I’m not her.

AW #4: There are Bugs in this World. If you forgot, we will remind you.

When the Attendant announces that insecticide — ‘with no adverse side effects’ — will now be sprayed up and down the aisles, the women bury their heads, horrified. I grin again. My bionic ear records more conversations. They are excited they can be in Botswana versus Kenya — for the exclusivity and the Okavango Delta. They will go on game drives. I wonder will I even see an elephant? I am relieved to hear there is no hunting allowed in Botswana. I look down the entire time. Africa from the sky.

Botswana from the sky.

Long, needle-thin roads and a windy river….I feel peaceful. I drift to sleep.

We land on the tarmac and are guided to customs where everything goes HAYWIRE! Forms filled wrong, glasses lost, luggage missing, passport snagged…I am asked to “give an address where I’m staying”! It occurs to me, I have no idea where I’m staying. It’s all up to Brooks. The “two email” man. But they won’t let me go out to find him.

I’m in a Shakespeare comedy: epic problems — hilarious only to spectators. Then, just like at the ticket gate in J-burg, they change their minds and let me go look for Brooks.

I turn a corner and there he is, holding a sign with my name. Instantly, he is pulled into my mini drama. We get right into action. Brooks puts a search out for my lost luggage. But I still can’t put the address where I’m staying. Why? Brooks tells me:

AW #5: Sometimes there won’t be an address.

We sort of…make one up. I think to myself no addresses in Motopi but if all goes well, perhaps the address of the youngest Shakespeare troupe in Africa.

Brooks and Machine save the day!

We leave the Maun airport and cross the street to an open air Indian place Tandurei. Instantly, cousins, nephews, brothers of Brooks…pass by or sit wth us. I meet “Machine” — brother of Brooks. He is a teacher and he is curious about his students learning Shakespeare. They want their kids to speak more English. It gives them an edge. Swana is only spoken in Botswana, so if they want to leave, they better know English.

AW #6: Sometimes you won’t have your clothes. And it’s actually fun.

I have no clothes because my suitcase is missing. Brooks takes me to a store and I now get to re-invent my entire African wardrobe that I so painstakingly chose before leaving. For 26$ I had plenty. Food is next. I will need food for the village. At the grocery store I notice most items are imported from South Africa. Nothing local. Granola, milk in a box, potatoes, carrots, bottled water and tea biscuits. Brooks looks skeptical. “Not enough. There is nothing where you are going.” Nothing?

AW #7: Know that you are dependent on protein bars unless you’re one of those rich Safari guests.

Lunch, brought from home. #Bison

I remember my friend telling me to pack beef jerky and protein bars. I think, really? I packed 5 “buffalo bars” which ended up being my lunch every day. Brooks was right. There was no food unless I knew how to kill an animal and cook it.

We drive away and Brooks cuts up a small road and weaves through some sporadic homes. We check on a house Brooks is building so he can rent it out and retire as a Game Drive guide. This is where I first encounter the Botswana House Spider: the size of my hand. I really really dislike spiders. This is a challenge. He lets me know, they are in all the houses. They are part of the walls… He tells me about this American teenager whining, “OMG, Mom, I wanna go home, like right now!” I vow to face my arachnophobia and overcome it. I mean… do I have a choice?

AW #8: See AW #4 !

Weaving Spiders, come not Near!

We pick up a woman called “Chicken” who owns the house where I will stay. She is riding along to let me in the house. Chicken explains that she is a widow and she left her home in the village and moved here to Maun after her husband died. So now I will live in her empty house in the village.

The road to Motopi is filled with potholes: cars swerve and it’s a comical sight. We stop at a Checkpoint where we get out of the car and step into a wet box of dirty water and bicarbonate of soda which — magically wards off Hoof & Mouth disease at the county border. The virus wiped out Botswana’s beef industry years back. The thing is….the water is contaminated with the bottom of everyone’s shoes. But it wasn’t my place to start pointing things out.

AW #9: If you step in a box of water and bicarbonate of soda before crossing the border, you are magically sterilized.

The trees are epic and line both sides of the road. The sky is wide and filled with animated clouds, all telling stories. Magic is not hard to find in this African sky.

It’s my first of many drives with Brooks, where we talk about many many things. I am being taken to the school of his childhood. These are the kids he wants to help. He comes to talk to them about Why We don’t Shoot Elephants.

We pull up to Chicken’s house, where I will stay. And here I am. This spot— in this village — is about everything I’ve done in my life up to this point. It all has come together for this moment. I meet my neighbor Pinky, a mother who also cleans the local school. We all visit but I am showing obvious tand the electical system. After they leave, I accidentally shut off the breakers and Pinky must come to the rescue. Silly American…. “I don’t got this. “

I will report to the school 8:30am tomorrow, meet the teachers, the principal and the kids and get to work.

12pm — Everyone gone. Just me and one misquito terrorizing in my bedroom. I’m under the sheet, totally, but he will burrow through, I know it. Brooks had taught me to Doom the Room. I really resisted the thought of spraying chemicals above my pillow….but at 1am, sleep deprived in this hot bedroom, all bets are off. I “Doom the Room” and run outside.

I stop and look at the sky. Two stars fall within 10 minutes. I haven’t seen a falling star in decades. I go back to my bedroom. The pesty misquito is apparently….doomed.

I go to sleep… a different person than who I was at LAX. At Frankfurt. At J-Burg, and drifting off, I wonder who will I be tomorrow?

Next. Shakespeare in Africa #4: If You Come, They will Build it.

I never expected this.

 

 

*At the time this was written, Ian Khama was President. On April 1, his term ended.

Shakespeare in Africa #2: The Unlikely Spot Where I Found Hope for Humanity. Germany.

Installment #2 – Shakespeare in Africa.

I’m on my way to attempt to launch a Shakespeare Troupe with kids in a rural village in Botswana, Africa. But right now, I sit in seat 23D over New Jersey pondering my bad life choices and wondering why, on every flight I’ve ever taken, there’s a German woman next to me who’s been all over the world. This flight is no exception. “Ana” in 23C has been to Botswana and thirty other countries in Africa. Listening to Ana pauses my overactive brain. She looks a lot like the wife of the relative from Stuttgart who turned in my grandmother for communist agitation in ‘36. Maybe she’s their daughter. I decide not to bring it up. Then I smile, proud of my improved sense of discretion.

My racing brain slows down the further away we get from Los Angeles. Now my thoughts go from panic over packing to …bad life choices.

I should have stayed in New York. Nah. 

Thoughts over New York:  Is it normal to have regets for bad life choices? I made so many. Should I have left New York let him convince me to leave New York. Should I have stayed in New York? … Nah.

“Would you like a beverage?”

I stare at the Styrofoam cups at my eyeline. Cups for you and me to sip 8 ounces of unnecessary beverage, then toss. Where do they go and how many thousands are discarded in a day? Who decided on Styrofoam? Bad choice. We are such invaders on this planet. I’m 9 and a vegan. I’m worried about cows and where the world’s trash goes…I recall my dad’s response that “someone is running things and they have it under control and everything is going to work out.” I knew he was wrong then. You see, I need to by cynical, it keeps the pain away.

Is Greenland underserved? Maybe they need Shakespeare here.

Thoughts over Greenland : Who lives on that ice? Are there kids in Greenland? What’s it like to be 18 here? Do they stare into cell phones there? Should I start a Shakespeare Youth troupe here? If everything is going to melt here, maybe this is where I should live. Sounds like a good choice right now.

Nothing bad happens in the Cotswalds.

Thoughts over Britain: London is losing its iconic skyline…a ferris wheel? High-rises? Britain controlled the world for five minutes — and in that five minutes, borders changed, tribes disrupted, the future altered forever. Bad choices, Britain. Look at you now. Look at all of us now. 

“Would you like a beverage?”

“Not until you stop using Styrofoam.” Um…Did I just say that? Good or bad choice? I realize “choice” is incorrect. We all have choices, what we make are decisions. Then it hits me. What if it was every single bad decision from the very beginning — that got me here, in seat 23D, on my way to Botswana, Africa? 

Train to Altstadt, Frankfurt. 

Hope for Humanity found in Frankfurt Coffee House 

I’m onto something. If I can think this way, I won’t carry the world on my shoulders anymore. I leave the airport for a long layover and Frankfurt is snowing. I grab a train to Old Town and walk for hours on cobblestones. I’m seeing with newish eyes. Light shimmers on the snow, colors seem brighter, the air in my lungs is crisper. I feel every cell in my body on this walk over the bridge. I land in a coffee house to write about it in my journal. It’s warm and soft. I sit on a purple velvet sofa, dumping my heavy bags and sipping espresso. Suddenly I feel…hopeful. What’s happening?! The colors and fabrics, the lighting, warm tones…but it’s something else. SOUND. Everyone is talking. I’d forgotten this sound in this context. People are talking to each other over coffee.

In Wackers Kaffee I realize…people still talk. 

With the exception of Shakespeaere rehearsals in our theatre, my days are quiet. If I’m writing in a coffee house, no one talks! We stare into screens. Starbucks is a library without books. Talk in Groundworks, you offend the budding screenwriter next to you. Not here. I’m in awe as I listen to multi conversations in multi languages. It heartens me – Germany is filled with people conversing, smiling, responding. If people still talk in coffee houses it means revolutions can still be plotted. It means not everyone is on Snapchat. It means we still matter to each other. If I never make it to Africa … I can still go home with this new hope. I feel good about people for the first time in years. I get it. I have a choice: cynicism and isolation or hope for humanity. Today in the coffee house in Frankfurt, hope for humanity is my decision.

I’m relaxed. I’m in the moment. I know how I want to think now. Life is an adventure. Every day. The Troubleshooter in my brain got wind of this and feels the need to crash the party. In a gentle tone… Can you please….see if you got an email from Air Botswana? You should have been alerted to check in. Damn you. I search on my phone. Nothing. I can’t think about this, nor can I solve it. Time to return to the airport.

On the plane now. I meet my Frankfurt to J-burg seat partner. “Petra” has been to Botswana and 20 other countries in Africa. Petra laughs when I ask her about Air Botswana. She laughs when I ask if I can check in online. She laughs when I tell her I have 30 minutes to transfer at J-burg. Petra is German. She laughs as she says, “You are learning the African way: Make all the plans you like! Just be ready for what happens…”

I let my German seat partner laugh all she wants. I have a beautiful life. If I made a bad decision by in booking two African flights back to back, well…it’s only going to lead to a future miracle.

Next Up: Shakespeare in Africa #3: How to Be a Different Person.

 

“Shakespeare in Africa? What Do You Think You’re Doing?”

From the Journal of Miss Blaire.  LAX.  March 18, 2018. 3 pm.


I’m headed to Africa based on two emails. Two. Emails. That’s what no one else really knows.

The final performances of our ’18 Season (King Lear and my own play, Illspoken: The People vs. William Shakespeare), are actually happening right this very friggin’ minute. I feel strange. I’ve never missed a performance in 13 years of running the Shakespeare Youth Fest! It’s weird not being backstage right now. Like I’ve lost a toddler that’s made a mad dash into the crowd. Aren’t I supposed to be shushing the players or teasing hair or getting Zane’s bloody eyepatch to look red not pink. Making sure Aaron doesn’t touch the set so it falls on ‘Mma again (pictured left). It’s closing night, why am I sitting here at Bradley Terminal waiting to board a three-pronged flight from L.A. to the bottom of Africa? By myself. Why am I crying? Why am I so sad?  Am I scared?  Why am I doing this? I’ve been sick for weeks and I can’t seem to recover. I cough and get weak and lose energy. I was told to cancel this trip (by people who cancel things). But I don’t. I’d sooner die than back down. I was supposed to go with two other women who have been here before. One is my oldest friend. But they had serious things happen and they couldn’t go. How much caffeine was I spinning on when I asked to go to Botswana by myself? And not on Safari, but to launch a performing arts program from scratch at a rural primary school?  No Safari. The voice of multiple people are in my head, now.  “Excuse me.  Shakespeare in Africa? I mean culturally, that makes no sense. More Western thought? And who cares about Shakespeare when they have to deal with clean water and food scarcity? Plus…you’re not James Shapiro, you’re not the RSC or OSF or  The Globe. What do you think you’re doing?”

Los Angeles Drama Club is anything but cute.

With Imposter Syndrome now fully set in as I sit in the terminal. I’m trying to remember, did anyone actually say this to me? No. But I’m sure it’s what all the WhiteSplainers are thinking.  Then, “Oh yeah. No one is thinking about you. Get over it.”  I think I’m taking on shades of Lear himself….”Who am I to my kids?”  The insanity is interrupted by a text from Regan (actually our player, Julia E). “Lear’s going amazing. Best ever.”

Great show. As always.

Yay. Now I can add FOMO on top of Imposter Syndrome. Why can’t I be content, let alone happy? 

It is because I’m a jaded grouch or is it because “no artist is pleased”? I am actually very happy for our Players and I am wise enough to know all the crazy monkey mind talk is fear. I feel like Gloucester at the edge of the cliff. (Even my eye is messed up today). I started this entire “thing” – whatever it is, and even back then I didn’t know what the “plan” was except to get two 5 year-olds to speak Shakespeare. It was an experiment that suddenly  mushroomed into hundreds of kids and 27 plays in the Canon already performed… thirty minutes until boarding….okay. I want this nagging voice to leave me the !$*%!! alone before I walk onto that plane.  I have thirty minutes to write a push back and purge it forever.  Setting alarm with Siri for 4:15pm.  Go:

Why do anything? Why try? If I were nine and a visitor was coming to my school from as far away as southern Africa to share customs, teach a dance, impart the language of Swana, tell stories and legends of their ancestors, act out their folk lore – how would I feel? (….excited, honored, ignited. curious, open, grateful).  So why wouldn’t they feel the same? This is about universal stories. New stimulation. Theatre games bringing connection. Self discovery. Play. I am allowed to show up and play. I am not a colonizer. I am not a celebrity going into a village for photo ops. I am not a tourist on safari. I am an artist who loves young people and theatre and Shakespeare. And I don’t need to be in the Royal Shakespeare to be a champion of the Underdogs, the Forgotten, the Ignored, the Abandoned and the Other 99% of the world.  I am the person to do this. If we fail, we fail. But screw your courage to the sticking place, and we’ll not fail!  Thanks, Lady M.  And thanks for your concern Imposter Syndrome, but I don’t need you on this trip.  You’re staying home. I’m sure you’ll pick me up at the airport…

Jesse, Marieke, Vivian, Sebastian in King Lear

That push back took 9 minutes to write.  With 21 minutes to spare, I’m off to get my last Starbucks. Maybe ever.

6pm. Over Detroit.

Or thereabouts. I left “Who do you think you are?” back at the airport but Nature abhors a vacuum so a new personality has surfaced. The Troubleshooter. The Troubleshooter has accepted that it’s a done deal. The Troubleshooter (my Mother from the grave I’m sure) has caught on to my little secret which no one knows… This trip to the bottom of Africa  hinges on two emails between me and Mr. Brooks Kamanakao: who I don’t know.  Why am I not panicking? Brooks was referred to me via my friend Dee Dee. I trust Dee Dee and Dee Dee trusts Brooks. His last email: “See you at the airport.”

At this point I am ready to arrive in Maun and have no one be there and deal with it. But right now I’m trapped in a tiny seat in Coach with my mother’s voice. An onslaught of: “Where are you staying?… Find a hospital … What if he isn’t at the airport? … You didn’t learn one word of Swana … Did you forget the malaria pills? … Have your passport around your neck.”

I can’t. I won’t. Yap all you want, Troubleshooter.  We’re going to just sit here in coach and stare at the seat in front of us that’s practically rammed into our knees…with all these unanswered questions.  For the next 9 hours.

 

Next installment: Getting to Motopi, Botswana