At the center of the stage on a screen is projected in shadow play an immense tree draped in lianas, long trailing vines that produce latex for rubber. Under the tree are four playing areas: Thorson’s office that doubles as a sitting room; the Chancellor’s office; a kitchen; and far downstage, a river bank.
Based on the political realities of the Congo’s two most recent dictators, Joseph Mobutu and Laurent Kabila, Rubber takes place in contemporary, urban central Africa and in part explores the nineteenth century colonial legacy of the rubber trade on the politics and culture of an imaginary African country. It tells the story of the chief of security, General Thorson, and his white male secretary, Maze, the son of a brutal colonial enforcer, Mazinsky, who is now a powerful spirit in the world of the dead. According to contemporary central African belief, the world of the dead and the world of the living are completely intertwined: Thorson’s job is to persuade Maze to help him enlist the spirit of Mazinsky in a war against the rebels. Rubber is a full-length play and takes two hours, including an intermission, to perform. The following three-page excerpt sets up the world of the play. The dialect that Samuel speaks is working-class Nigerian English.
Act I/Opening Monologue
(Before lights come up, audience hears the sound of a cleaver chopping roots and herbs. Lights come up on Samuel, General Thorson’s cook and aide-de-camp. During monologue, Samuel busies himself in kitchen preparing ingredients for poison test, a traditional way of determining who is lying and who is telling the truth. He mixes various roots and herbs together, puts the concoction in a blender, adds water, turns on blender for a moment, pours it all into a Coca Cola bottle and shakes it up.)
When you sleep, who that in you house? You hear them noises, little chicken scratch noises, and you think, Oh, that nothing, just wind, just mouse, just house creak and creak. And when you here, sitting in you seat, you think you house locked up tight, no man have key but you—but what that shadow you neighbor see in window, what that voice echo behind locked door? And you neighbor, who you think you best friend, or even fellow next to you right here, him all dressed up in tight shoes and tight trousers, what if he be kind want to take you house to live in for his own self, and what if he go bargain with spirits of the dead, and the dead go help him because you, you no believe in dead—the dead they dead, what dead man do to you? Them noises you hear at night, they the dead in you house. When you sleep, they do they work. And when you work, they sleep in you bed. Now all you shut you eyes one moment.
You shut you eyes, and we all go talk to dead, they all round us, they stretch in line all way to beginning of the world. You talk to father mayhap, mayhap you talk to mother, grandfather or grandmother.
What he say to you, what she say?
_ (Long pause.)_
You talk to dead, it make you thirsty, you want drink something, hunh?
_ (Holds out potion in Coke bottle.)_
Here, sir, you drink—
_ (Then takes bottle back.)_
—but you go be careful before you drink. Here, in my country, you drink this, it be like poison, it make you dizzy: That how we know if you do kindoki, you know, juju, witchcraft. No, no, I no talk on witches that fly them broomsticks, man, I talk on rich men, the Big Vegetables: all them chaps witches, else how they get so rich?—and once they rich, what they go need broomstick for when they fly they own private plane? Or mayhap you rich man to start with, you powerful man, so you go hire witch to bargain with dead, witch sell the living to the dead, then dead go give you plane, Rolex, Landrover. Even fellow like me, even mouse like me, just little little mouse, what if I do kindoki?—(to audience member) and how I know you no do kindoki too? How I know you not a witch, selling the living to the dead for those jeans and that shirt and that ring on you finger? The dead, they hungry, they need to eat (beat) just like you (beat), they need to drink (beat), just like you (beat)…and you do kindoki, you sell the dead my lungs to eat, my heart to eat, so I go get sick in my lungs, my heart, and then the dead, they go give you what you bargain for, they go give you those jeans, that shirt, that nice nice ring. Oh yes, the dead they hungry (beat), and who else they eat but you and you and you—all you living that go be dead one day….And then you eat the living (beat) the same now as the dead eat you. (Beat.) Mayhap you think, This fellow talk on his own country, what he know about my country, hunh? Well, you got stock exchange, you go to bank man, IMF man, World Bank man, CIA man, they all do kindoki, they all witches go talk to money spirits, money spirits say, Feed me this, and this, and I go give you plane. Rolex. Jaguar—the motor car I talk on, not the beast, now. And you think, Well how that the same, that money we talk on, not dead people. But you look money spirit in the eye and what you see?
_ (Takes out paper money from his wallet.)_
You see Big Vegetable stare back at you, you see George Washington, you see Tom Jefferson, you see witch man what give you the evil eye. And that eye, it got power over you, even though George Washington dead, Tom Jefferson, he dead, they dead long long long time ago.
_ (Samuel gives the audience a slow once-over, then takes a sip.)_
You see, the dead right beside you all time, you no escape dead. So you best be careful round here: You no respect dead, dead no respect you.
The play Rubber was produced at the 2002 Midtown International Theater Festival in New York.
Tom Sleigh’s books include House of Fact, House of Ruin; Station Zed; Army Cats, which won the John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and Space Walk, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Award. His most recent book of essays, The Land between Two Rivers: Writing in an Age of Refugees, recounts his time as a journalist in the Middle East and Africa. He has received the Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of Ameria, and grants from the Lila Wallace Fund, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the American Academy in Berlin, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the MFA Program at Hunter College and is a contributing editor of AGNI. For more, visit www.tomsleigh.com. (updated 3/2020)
Sleigh’s AGNI poem “After Herodotus” won a Pushcart Prize and was reprinted in the 2006 anthology. “At the Pool” was chosen for The Best American Poetry 2009.
Tom Sleigh and Charles Bardes coauthored “A Viral Exchange, under Lockdown” for the AGNI blog. “An Interview with Tom Sleigh” by Allegra Wong also appears at AGNI Online. Sleigh’s second book, Waking, was reviewed in AGNI 34 by Joseph Lease. His collection The Chain was reviewed in AGNI 43 by Susan Mitchell. His collection The Dreamhouse was reviewed in AGNI 52 by Sven Birkerts.