I’m not an expert on Congolese music, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t sound like Spring Awakening—and this is essentially the problem with Brian Kulick’s staging of Mother Courage and Her Children, which ingeniously transplants Brecht’s play from seventeenth-century Europe to modern-day Congo but does little to establish the space beyond the vague gestures associated with the Africa of the American imagination. That is, Mr. Kulick removes all specific references to Germany, Poland, Protestants, Catholics, and their monarchs, but doesn’t bother to replace them with much more than accents and flags. Indeed, even the European names of Mother Courage’s (Kecia Lewis) children—Eilif (Curtiss Cook, Jr.), Swiss Cheese (Deandre Sevon), and Kattrin (Mirirai Sithole)—remain inexplicably intact. Which is a shame, since the conceit fits the text perfectly; it is as if the idea were enough, that no research, no intimacy with the location was necessary.
By now, most of the New York theater world is familiar with Tonya Pinkins’ exit from Mother Courage and her accusation that her character was depicted “through the filter of the White gaze.” She writes, “This production does not include a single vestige of the specific war in the Congo. For me, the cultural misappropriation is unconscionable. Why must Africa, why must blackness itself, be general, a decorative motif, instead of being as specific and infinitely diverse as its reality?” She just as easily could have written “as the West.”
Now, I tried to approach this production neutrally; I read neither Ms. Pinkins’ statement nor Mr. Kulick’s response until after I had seen it. But if I am being honest, scene by scene, beat by beat, this Mother Courage bears out nearly everything Ms. Pinkins has written: it feels like a production conceived, adapted, and directed by white eyes squinting towards Africa.
It is only fair to quote from Mr. Kulick’s rebuttal: “Do we need place names, do we need to rewrite narration to make this leap or can it live in the realm of images, music and the given circumstances of the actors?” The answer, it seems obvious to me, is Yes. In empyting Brecht’s place names and leaving them vacant, the suggestion is that the Congolese tradition itself is vacant. Furthermore, this realm of images is clearly constructed from the outside in, while the music—composed by Duncan Sheik—is mostly in the vein of sterile soft-rock show tunes spiced with some electronica.
It should be said that Ms. Lewis, who replaced Ms. Pinkins only two weeks ago, does an admirable job grappling with “the King Lear in the classical canon of female roles.” And Ms. Sithole’s mute Kattrin is absolutely haunting. In an early scene, her mother dirties her face to protect her from soldiers. But for some reason, she is a little stingy, and Kattrin’s face looks virtually the same afterwards, an appropriate microcosm for this production as a whole. The world of Mother Courage is one of animal survival, of displacement and sexual assault, one in which only the hyenas of the battlefield have a chance of carrying on. Here, the stage is sanitized, the music monotonous, the politics buried under misappropriation and white gaze.