- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2003

Often we travel to find ourselves. Or to lose ourselves, become someone else altogether. Playwright Kira Lallas went to South Africa for an independent college study project less than a decade after apartheid ended. Her reasons for going there are vague, but she was firm about one thing: She would stay until something changed within her.

Her absorbing play, “Translations of Xhosa,” chronicles her transformation, which was not only physical (more about that later), but spiritual. Her months of living in a black township with a woman-centered host family enabled Miss Lallas to cast off her grief and fears and break out of her shell of self-absorption.

True, it’s a bit solipsistic, but then again, Miss Lallas is young, astonishingly young, and taking your emotional temperature every 15 minutes has emerged as the favorite pastime of American twentysomethings. Older audience members will likely be deeply amused by Miss Lallas’ hearty ego, especially when she talks about her experiences as if she just might believe that South Africa was put on this Earth solely to slap her into late-breaking womanhood.

Yes, under apartheid women were tortured and raped, men were beaten and humiliated in countless ways. And while her eloquent recounting of the painful stories the women told her are some of the finest passages of “Translations of Xhosa,” you come away with the feeling that Miss Lallas views the suffering during apartheid as so many footnotes to her personal journey of self-discovery.

Be advised: The cringe factor here rises to alarming levels when Miss Lallas continuously talks to her ovaries, asking them to give her strength and beseeching them to do what nature intended. At 20, Miss Lallas, a lifelong vegetarian, has yet to menstruate, and she hopes South Africa will bring about this biological event. (It does.)

Between “The Vagina Monologues,” “Puppetry of the Penis” and now Miss Lallas’ chatting with her female organs, there is entirely too much conversation with one’s private parts going on in the theater. Let’s stop it now.

Every time “Translations of Xhosa” leaves the spherule of the self, it soars. Miss Lallas appears adept at the Xhosa language — complete with the distinctive tongue “clicks” — and her impersonations of the children of the village are sweet and spot-on. Her physical and verbal gifts are at their peak of elasticity when she recounts teaching a theater class to 35 students for whom English is a third or fourth language.

She leads the class in turning a seemingly inconsequential 24 hours into the stuff of dramatic storytelling. Some of the students step up and eagerly explain to Miss Lallas the meaning of their names, which leads to a blaze of self-description. With a flick of the head and a thrust of the hips and belly, Miss Lallas transforms herself from the self-conscious young American white woman into the vivid and verbal personalities of the South African students.

Miss Lallas is aided by the remarkable Uzo Aduba, a singer and actress who provides background characters for the piece. Although she often seems a shadowy presence, there is nothing timid about Miss Aduba, who speaks volumes with a shrug of her shoulders, a sidelong glance or a wide smile. She is at once bold and subtle.

“Translations of Xhosa” also is enhanced by musician Scotty Conant, whose plaintive guitar and drumming gives us a potent hint of the power of South African pop music.

Miss Lallas’ play won the top award at the 2003 Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. You can see why, because “Translations of Xhosa” holds such promise when it ventures beyond the merely personal and into the cracked-open heart of South Africa.

**1/2

WHAT: “Translations of Xhosa” by Kira Lallas

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through tomorrow.

TICKETS: $10

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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