Tibi´s Law

Review by Willard Manus

LOS ANGELES-- Thanks to translator/director Robert Cohen and Stages Theatre Center, local audiences have a rare chance to see the work of a major contemporary French playwright, Jean Verdun. Author of 21 plays and novels, Verdun is best known on the Continent for his drama L'Architecte, which last year enjoyed a long run at the Theatre Royal du Parc in Brussels.

Verdun's latest play, TIBI'S LAW (in French, Lieux que nos peres) was published two years ago in Paris but remained unproduced until Paul Verdier, Stages' artistic director, asked Cohen to turn it into an English-language version that he could premiere at his theatre. The result is something of a coup, not only for Stages but for everyone in Los Angeles who likes provocative stage work.

"It was a Congolese actor friend who encouraged me to write the story of a sayer who speaks at funerals and who constructs a hut for a young woman he takes in," writes Verdun in a program note. "This friend hoped that I would write a play that would fall within a certain African tradition. I myself am not African. It would have been a mistake to entrust me with this idea if it were only to express the particular sensibility of a Congolese; by my nature and culture, I always look for something more universal. TIBI'S LAW is therefore the result of a journey through various languages and regions of the world, but the element that gives unity to all of this is a reflection of a universal and humanist nature."

Playing Tibi the sayer is the excellent Paul Williams, who addresses his lines to the audience, as if it were a group of white tourists gawking at an African burial ritual. (Some of his remarks are also addressed to the families of the deceased). Clad in a tattered but raffish jacket and tophat, Tibi is part master of ceremonies, part lecturer, part voice of the oppressed but resilient African people. For much of a long but gripping first act, Williams commands the stage by himself, delivering a monologue that is by turns witty, poetic, satiric, sardonic and heart-rending. Tibi survives by his gift of gab, but he is still not far removed from the abject poverty shared by most of his countrymen. His clothes are rags, his possessions (carried in a purloined baby carriage) few, and he lives out in the open, at the edge of a savannah that also serves as a tourist attraction.

Tibi has seen something of the world (prison, a year in England) and has learned a thing or two from books, enabling him to formulate his own philosophy (Tibi's law), which can be summed up thusly: life is a pyramid, with the few at the top squeezing, exploiting and slaughtering those at the bottom for their own gain.

Tibi's understanding of selfishness, greed and unfettered capitalism (read, globalism) are put to the test when he discovers Mara (the equally impressive Erinn Anova) hiding on his little scrap of land. Though she's from his village, a young woman who has been brutalized by life (soldiers killed her husband and child), Tibi could easily cast her out, deny any responsibility for her. After all, he barely has enough to eat.

Much of the byplay between Tibi and Mara has a Beckettian flavor: two tramps on the dark side of society exchanging cryptic remarks while awaiting some kind of resolution of their tatterdemalion lives. But where Beckett does not allow his characters the possibility of change, Verdun in his humanistic way can see love and hope in Tibi and Mara's future--the future of the African people.

Cohen's translation and direction are superb, ditto the technical contributions of Grant Van Zevern (set design), Leigh Allen (lighting), Madeline Kozlowski (costumes) and Michael Mortilla (sound/music). TIBI'S LAW is a must-see production for Los Angeles audiences.

At Stages Theater Center, 1540 N. McCadden Place, through May 25. Call (323) 463-1010 or visit www.StagesTheaterCenter.com