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On the Culture Front: Africa Onstage and Up Close

02/14/2013 06:57 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2013

The unknown is generally thrilling in any form. It's the feeling that all your past experiences have been rendered irrelevant by what's now in front of you. That's the thought I had watching two elephants have sex last summer from the deck of a whimsically named lodge (The Ark -- designed to look like Noah's with almost as many animals that regularly chill by the property's large feeding trough) in the middle of Aberdare National Park in Kenya.

We had just returned from a long safari drive punctuated with a hike down to the bottom of a waterfall -- while Kenya is known for its big five (lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo, rhino) sightings, getting within arms reach of the massive rush of water was awesome. After a picnic lunch and search for an African toilet (hole in the ground encased in a small structure) not occupied by a cheetah, I was ready for a pre-dinner nap. Nature had other plans though, and I no sooner stepped into my room than our guide, Charles, appeared at my door insisting that I hurry back to the deck. The elephants were getting amorous, and it became quickly apparent that their brand of love is neither subtle nor shy. With a length of over six feet long with the girth of a fire hose, it's hard to imagine an aroused elephant's penis fitting comfortable anywhere but the female takes it all with aplomb in a matter of seconds. The whole process is concise and efficient. A male scopes the grounds for a female that gives him a stiffy and begins the approach and mounting process. If the female has no objections, she does nothing and is dutifully penetrated for about 10 seconds. If she's not feeling it, she moves away and the hunt continues.

Kenya is a beautiful country -- from the friendly Maasai tribesmen dressed in traditional Shuka robes who are knowledgeable guides of the Mara to the city dwellers in Nairobi who talk optimistically about emerging from a war-torn past -- but it was in that moment watching the elephants that I began to feel I was in Africa.

The other month, I noticed one of my favorite theater companies (Soho Rep) was producing a show that focused on a little-known-about genocide in Namibia. The play (We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrica, Between the Years 1884-1915) has an astoundingly long title for such a brilliantly succinct work that weaves a reenactment of the German genocide of the Herero people with a theater company's struggle to shed light on the story. Presented in an utterly bare space that intentionally shreds the barrier between the audience and the action, we witness the actors struggle with their own identity and relationship to race as they inhabit characters with stark views of that divide.

Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury's dialogue is both unadorned yet perfectly formed. I was surprised and delighted the presentation style never felt preachy. Instead, it distilled a lot of information about the genocide and its origins into mere minutes, used humor to disarm, fooled the audience into thinking their wasn't a dramatic structure, and then hitting us with one of the most powerful and chilling climaxes I've experience in the past year. If I close my eyes, I can still feel it.