Kim Sullivan, Stephanie Berry,and Tobias Truvillion in The Missing Face(Photo:  Jacqui Casto)
Kim Sullivan, Stephanie Berry,
and Tobias Truvillion in The Missing Face
(Photo: Jacqui Casto)
Half of the two-play series "The African Project" currently being produced by the New Federal Theatre, The Missing Face is by noted African playwright Tess Onwueme. The play concerns a single mother from Milwaukee who, fearing her son Amaechi will be another victim of harsh life on the streets, brings her boy (who's on the verge of becoming a man) to Africa to find the father who abandoned them both years earlier.

Armed only with the knowledge that her child was from the African land of Edu--along with plenty of rhetoric about the importance of returning to one's roots--the outspoken and determined mother, Ida Bee, clashes with an Edu elder named Odozi, who finds her claims of African heritage laughable; he declares that, since she was born in America and speaks like an American, she is therefore considered "white" by African standards, despite the color of her skin. But when it comes out that Amaechi's father is in fact Odozi's recently-returned prodigal son Momah, Odozi and his wife Nebe welcome Ida and Amaechi into their home. Conflicts arise when Momah is unwilling to accept Ida into the household and as both Momah and Amaechi struggle to go through their rites of passage. There is also a mystery about Momah's father--the solving of which, rather puzzlingly, makes for a happy ending to the play.

The Missing Face has many interesting characters and provocative ideas, but these things never manage to cohere into great drama. Rather, the story meanders around, sometimes hitting bright spots only to veer off into an endless speech or nonsensical action. At first, the conflict between Ida and Odozi is refreshing and funny; it's fascinating to see and hear an African-American lecture an African native about his own culture, and then to hear the native's bemused response. But while Odozi's colorful language, full of jokes and elaborate metaphors, is intriguing, his speeches grow repetitive, lengthy, and difficult to understand. Throughout the play, we hear the same rants and complaints from Odozi, Ida, and Nebe, though we barely hear a word from Amaechi or Momah. Is Amaechi really so anxious to return to his African roots and find his father, or is his mother living out her own desire to find her father (also an Edu native, who abandoned her as a child)? What do the rites of passage to manhood mean to Amaechi? It's a shame that Onwueme barely gives the young man a chance to speak; it would be nice to know his feelings, since it's his welfare that seems to motivate everything Ida says and does.

Momah, too, keeps curiously silent throughout. In a flashback sequence that is unquestionably the highlight of the play, we see his initial meeting with Ida. She is a spitfire college student who grooves to Michael Jackson and waxes philosophical about the importance of African heritage, he is a visiting student from Africa who admires American culture and likes to call himself "Jack." Though they seem as different as night and day--she longs for the culture of her homeland (a culture that "Jack" calls a "myth") while he studies urban planning so that he can use his skills to make Africa more 'civilized'--the two are nonetheless attracted to each another and become lovers. When we return to the present with the knowledge that "Jack" abandoned Ida and their child and eventually returned to his family in Edu, there are many unanswered questions hanging in the air. Having gone back to his African name of Momah and having prepared to begin rites of passage, he stands still and says nothing. Did he discover the truth behind the "myth" that Ida always believed in so firmly? He never really tells us, and we're left to wonder what could have led this man back to the home that he so readily abandoned.

There are many fine moments in the play concerning African culture and the relationship that modern African-Americans and native Africans have with it. When Nebe welcomes Ida into her home with a kind of informal ceremony wherein the pair sing and dance together as Ida dresses in native garb, Ida dances to African drumming the same way that she danced earlier to the music of Michael Jackson. The image of father and son Momah and Amaechi venturing out together in pursuit of their manhood is a meaningful one. And after being thrown into the bush by Momah, Ida wanders out disturbed, singing "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child"--an American spiritual in the land of her ancestors.

But what ties all of this together makes little sense. Patricia White's often aimless direction never allows us to gain a clear sense of the environment, and Onwueme's characters' motivations are equally murky. Momah throws Ida into 'the bush' in an unprecedented fit of anger and it's never even explained what 'the bush' is, why Ida can't find her way back from it, or why her distraught son doesn't go in search of her. Nebe moves from treating Ida like an interloper to treating her like a daughter in a matter of minutes (like her son and grandson, Nebe tells us little of what she is thinking or feeling). Neither Nebe nor Odozi seem to have anything to say to Momah about his behavior, and Odozi accepts Ida and Amaechi into the family far too quickly.

The Missing Face features a few good performances (notably David Wright as resident drummer and comic relief), some beautiful language and imagery, and an interesting premise that unfortunately doesn't go anywhere. What appears to be Onwueme's ultimate message is a bit hard to take: The title of the show refers to a discovery that solidifies Ida and Amaechi's ties with the rest of the family, but it would appear that blood ties are all that really matter to these people. Once those ties are established, nothing else--deceit, violence, abandonment, denial of heritage--is important. This belief, valid or not, is presented without any significant exploration of other points-of-view. Nor is it well supported by the play itself.