By Michelle Trauring
Before Paton Miller agreed to put brush to canvas, he made one request.
He wanted to hear the poem first — and so, Kenny Mann complied.
She took the floor in his Southampton studio, the artist seated across from her. She inhaled, he leaned back, and she began.
“I sat in my chair and she just took me into this dream world. She taps into the part of the brain with unlimited, unbridled imagination. It is like a dream,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “And then I had my own dream about her dream, and that became the poster I made for her. It was like we collaborated on a subconscious level.”
In 45 minutes, Mann had woven him an epic tale that harkens back to her childhood and the mysticism that surrounded her, growing up just outside of Nairobi, Kenya — the long, big, beautiful plains of Athi River, and the myths of the Maasai tribe.
Her play, “Naisula: A Prayer for a White Woman, Her African Servant, A Shaman and A Spirit Child” — which will stage with a full cast
and crew on Tuesday, October 3, at Guild Hall in East Hampton — may not be set in any particular place in Africa, but it was certainly inspired by her earliest memories.
“I haven’t left it behind, because pretty much everything I’ve ever done is tied to Africa,” she said. “If somebody asks me what I am, I say, ‘I’m a Kenyan.’ I am a Kenyan, through and through.”
Her story, which she wrote from her friend’s home in Westhampton last summer, revolves around the relationship between a white woman and her African servant, both caught in a world where they are trapped, yet bonded, to each other.
“Both the woman and her servant are divorced from their people, their families, their culture — bound together in their tiny, ugly bubble,” Mann said. “Yet, there is always the potential for healing, for finding a common bond.”
In despair, they decide to take a journey to visit the shaman, who finds ways to heal their wounded souls and, with the help of an assortment of mythical creatures, help them bring a spirit child to life.
“To me, that union and that child symbolize the healing of old wounds in Kenya and other African countries, between white and black, and the potential for true resolution of racial issues,” Mann said. “One thing I’m trying to avoid is any kind of Africa cliché. We do not have crazy drumming. We don’t have crazy dancing. We don’t have brightly colored cloth. We don’t have any of that stuff that people associate with Africans. It is an African story, but it’s a myth, so it takes place in some other realm.”
In conjunction with this play, Mann launched a GoFundMe campaign, a portion of which will benefit Maasai women of the Kitengela community in Kenya who are struggling to send their daughters to school.
“I’m great friends with a young chief there, Nickson Parmisa, and he and other elders founded a high school for girls — not just for educational purposes, but as a sanctuary for these teenage girls who are otherwise at risk of being sold off against livestock or forced to marry much older men, or forced to undergo female genital mutilation,” Mann said.
“This school is an important part of this project, as is education. I’ve barely met an American who even knows where Kenya is. It’s still the Dark Continent to them. The ignorance is unfathomable. I want people to stop thinking about Africa with this awful cliché.”
“Naisula: A Prayer for a White Woman, Her African Servant, A Shaman and a Spirit Child,” by Kenny Mann, will stage on Tuesday, October 3, at 7:30 p.m. at Guild Hall in East Hampton, as part of the JDT Lab series. Cast includes: Bevin Bell-Hall, Lambert Tamin, Dianne Dixon, Marilyin Louis, Ahkaii Franklin, Akyiaa Wilson, Scotland Newton, Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, Adrienne Hardin, Evan Thomas, Maria Bacardi and Kenny Mann. Admission is free, but reservations are strongly encouraged. For more information, please call (631) 324-0806, or visit guildhall.org.
To donate to the Maasai women of the Kitengela community and Nickson Parmisa’s high school for girls, visit gofundme.com/naisula.