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Play ‘on the brink of a free fall’

Local playwright brings Africa to Arizona

By Leigh E. Rich

Tucson author and playwright Patrick Baliani believes that theater is “kind of a schizophrenic endeavor.” By necessity, it forces actors, directors, and audience members to think from a multiplicity of perspectives. Baliani explains that his latest play, “A Namib Spring,” is one where the audience can “look at another person with a different awareness. It’s as simple as that.”

Simple for him, perhaps. An M.F.A. graduate from the UA with a long trail of credits and honors behind him, Baliani began writing plays five years ago. “Figs and Red Wine”—presented at the Tucson Art Theatre and the Leo Rich Theatre in 1991—was his first production. “Theater was one of those discoveries. When it came, I was ready for it. The surprise was both unexpected and inevitable.”

“A Namib Spring” grew out of Baliani’s excursion to Namibia and South Africa several years ago. His experiences there “traumatized and inspired” him; he was “horrified by apartheid.” However, he began to realize that the conditions in Africa were similar to those he has witnessed all his life. He eloquently speaks of atrocities in our own “indelible national landscape,” like the aftermath of the Rodney King trial, and the senselessness in the world, like the conflicts in Bosnia.

In the months that followed, Baliani describes, “I doubted the validity of my writing a play about a woman, about lost children, about apartheid—circumstances I could only imagine.”

Looking towards influences like Doris Lessing (a white woman who wrote about black Chieftains in This Was the Old Chief’s Country) and James Baldwin, he realized that through art and imagination, we can know each other.

“A Namib Spring” is set on the eve of Namibia’s independence day. Containing four characters, it is a play about transformations—of a country and of the people. June, an American woman, returns to Namibia after suffering the loss of her child in England. Baliani’s play juxtaposes the “lush, yet closed, quarters of her English life to the stark, open beauty of the desert landscape.”

Her struggles through madness in search of sanity parallel those of the country. Baliani explores “the difficulties of ushering in freedom” and the ramifications of a country “on the brink of ultimate clarity and complete disintegration—the brink of a free fall.”

One of the two African characters in the play is not prepared to accept democracy and longs to return to a time before apartheid. “A Namib Spring” examines “what kind of turmoil that brings.”

Apartheid means “separate development,” and Baliani believes that it “is in essence a failure of the imagination”—an imagination which enables us, as humans, to take on the role of the other. He feels that this is “one of the things we don’t do enough of, despite our claims of multi-cultural diversity.”

We often engage in “thinking about the other, rather than as the other.” This is the very reason why Baliani’s play is performed in the round.

Although a veteran writer, “A Namib Spring” is Baliani’s first attempt at directing, and Pima’s black-box theater arranged in the round allows for only a small stage area.

“It’s tricky and scary. But what we wanted was a community feeling. We want the audience to see each other watching [the play].”

Baliani uses his art as a “vanguard toward reconciliation.” He explains that it is a vehicle which can promote understanding, “the one we can all share. It’s not the only one or the best, but it is certainly powerful.”

Baliani believes in the “healing power of story. We never stop to think how a story can heal.”

Raised in Rome, he has incorporated Italian folktales into his writing and into his teaching. The Bioprep Summer Program, a UA program Baliani team-taught with professors Michelle Taigue and Beth Alvarado, exposed Native American high school students to Greek and Italian folktales. Comparing the myths to their own, the students concluded that the essence of the folktales is parallel and jokingly added, “but in the Italian folktales, they eat a lot more.”

Baliani has also worked with the Third Street Kids, a group composed of young disabled actors. Already, he has done two plays with them and plans a third, “Sabunana,” next April. Teaching is essential for Baliani. “I consider myself always learning from the students.” He extends his salutations to all students, past and present.

After the production of “A Namib Spring” and his first directing experience is over, Baliani will skip town to San Diego. “I always get depressed after a play closes. You suffer this terrible void.” However, he will continue writing and teaching and, when asked about ultimate success, he believes, “You don’t ever want to make it there. You only want to be close.”

Baliani has appreciated the opportunity to direct.

“It has changed my perspective.” However, he laments, “It’s very demanding. I miss my desk.”

Rich, L.E. (1995, November 9). Play ‘on the brink of a free fall.’ Arizona Daily Wildcat.

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