By Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
InterAct Theatre Company's world premiere of Jen Silverman's The Dangerous House of Pretty Mbane examines the "new" South Africa. Post-apartheid, it's a progressive nation (it was the first country in Africa to legalize same-sex marriage) except when it isn't. With the 2010 World Cup as its backdrop, foreign journalists arrive to cheer and toast a new day, while for Noxolo and her lover Pretty, lesbians living under the constant threat of violence, little has changed.
Noxolo (Aimé Kelly) is a soccer star who managed to escape to London on an athletic scholarship, while Pretty (Lynette Freeman) remains in Soweto running a safe house for women who have suffered "corrective rape," the practice of raping lesbians in order to "fix" them. In London, Noxolo befriends Marcel (Eric Berryman), a gay man who severed ties with his homeland as soon as he could, and yet, for Noxolo, home still beckons.
Silverman's script handles its politics deftly, keeping character front and center: we learn quickly that Pretty is dead, though she wistfully recounts her final days. There's a bit of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice here, a voice from an unsettled afterlife, and Carolyn Mraz's gravelly set (with sun-parched lighting by Maria Shaplin), a wasteland flanked by corrugated tin walls, reinforces the idea that struggle is still what grows from this land. Kelly gives Noxolo an earthy presence, tough, smart, and stubborn. There's something about the way she drinks her liquor that looks like she's drowning memories, not enjoying herself.
Noxolo hopes to find the absent Pretty, and between them stands Noxolo's brother Sicelo (Akeem Davis) and British journalist Gregory (Ross Beschler), who, discredited in England, came to the World Cup to write a puff piece and redeem his reputation. Silverman turns the white savior trope on its head, as Noxolo offers Gregory a real story in exchange for his help. Her hustle is as strong as her personality, and here again, Kelly's performance reveals a depth to Noxolo that combines self-preservation with self-destructiveness.
Director Pirronne Yousefzadeh has a real affection for these characters, even misguided Sicelo and ineffective Gregory. Their humanity is never compromised, and neither are Silverman's laugh lines, which land exactly where they should. The story loses some of its forward motion by revealing Pretty's fate so early, but there's plenty left to consider about all five individuals, each invested in her or his own particular narrative of contemporary South Africa.