In the Spirit of Sankofa
The Strategically Circuitous Journey of Fabulation
By Faedra Chatard Carpenter, Production Dramaturg
“Sometimes, to go forward, we have to go back.”
While the exact wording of the above adage may vary from speaker to speaker or writer to writer, the essence of the phrase is repeatedly expressed across cultures and time. The very notion of Sankofa (a term originating from the Akan people of West Africa) serves as a prime example of this truism. Often translated as: “go back and fetch it,” “return to your past,” or “it is not taboo to go back and retrieve what you have forgotten or lost,” the concept of Sankofa can be found throughout the African Diaspora and beyond—including within Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation Or, The Re-Education of Undine.
The embedded significance of Sankofa was certainly not lost on Eric Ruffin, the director of Mosaic Theater Company’s production of Fabulation. Buoyed by Nottage’s artful integration of Germanic mythology, European literature, Yoruban spirituality, and African American folktales, Ruffin’s artistic vision for Fabulation emphasizes the importance of bearing the past into the future.
Case in point: for one to fully appreciate the dramatic arc of Fabulation’s central protagonist, Undine, our ensemble needed to recognize where “undine” comes from—and this is when we turn to Germanic mythology. According to Teutonic myths, an undine is an enchanting yet soulless creature, destined to remain soulless unless she marries a mortal and gives birth to his child. Inspired by this tale, the German baron Heinrich Karl de la Motte Fouque wrote the novella Undine (1811), detailing how his title character gains her soul by marrying her mortal love—only to experience the pain of human heartbreak when she discovers that her spouse has been unfaithful.
De la Motte Fouque’s Undine was one of the most celebrated fairytales of its era. While the author and his novella may experience relative obscurity now, the novella’s influence can be found in such disparate works as Hans Christian Anderson’s 1837 masterpiece, The Little Mermaid (along with all its many adaptations); Edith Wharton’s 1913 novel, A Custom of the Country, and—of course—today’s offering: Lynn Nottage’s Fabulation Or, The Re-Education of Undine.
Further propelled to honor the past and the creative expressions of our forebears, Ruffin’s production also takes care to highlight the ways in which Fabulation animates African cosmology and cultural traces. Emblematic of this directorial vision is Ruffin’s incorporation of Afrocentric musicality and movement, most vividly pronounced through the choreographed schematic of “the ring shout.” Merging both African and Christian elements, the ring shout was a religious activity that fortified a sense of survival and community among Blacks during American Slavery. Descended from dance forms originating in Central and West Africa, typical features of a ring shout included participants’ movement in a counter-clockwise circle, call-and-response singing, the creation of music through the clapping of hands and the pounding of feet, and a lead singer and/or a wooden-stick wielding percussionist. Borrowing the words of historian Jonathan David, the ring shout has long been understood as “an essential ritual” within African American cultural history, one that played a major role in “validating a group solidarity in the face of enormous oppression.” Moreover, as noted by historian Sterling Stuckey, the tradition of the ring shout further engendered the development of Black cultural expressions:
[T]he ring shout was the main context in which Africans recognized values common to them—the values of ancestor worship and contact, communication and teaching through storytelling and trickster expressions, and of various other symbolic devises. Those values were remarkable because, while of ancient African provenance, they were fertile seed for the bloom of new forms.
It is befitting to underscore Stuckey’s reference to new forms, particularly when it comes to “storytelling and trickster expressions,” since Fabulation also goes back to fetch trickster figures from both our ancient and more contemporary past. A number of notable scholars have addressed how the mythic figurations of the duplicitous West African deity, Elegba, survived the Middle Passage to be born anew in the cultural expressions of enslaved Africans and their successive progeny. Without question, Elegba’s most notable (and, perhaps, notorious) American descendent is the character of Brer Rabbit, a “double-voiced” trickster figure made famous in the Uncle Remus stories that were collected and compiled at the turn of the 20th century by the Atlanta journalist, Joel Chandler Harris. While Harris may have been the one to popularize and publish the tales of Brer Rabbit, he was always forthcoming in noting that his stories were drawn from African American folklore (which we know, in turn, trace their roots to African mythos).
So, as this succinct précis aims to reveal, while the notion of Sankofa permeates throughout the text of Nottage’s play, this particular production of Fabulation is infused with the sentiment of Sankofa in form as well as content. With an emphasis on community, this production pays homage to the roots and rituals that link both the past and present—and the European and African—within its orbit. Accordingly, we welcome you to join our circle of inclusion and fully immerse yourselves in the strategically circuitous adventure that is Fabulation Or, The Re-Education of Undine. We hope that you will enjoy the unfolding journey and that you will choose to go forward—and bring others back.