Africa does not immediately come to mind when picturing places near Orange City. But this weekend, the Northwestern theater department will bring pieces of it to life in “Arlene: An African Trilogy.”
Eight years ago, NW Theatre Professor Jeff Barker began writing “Sioux Center Sudan,” a play following the adventures of missionary Arlene Schuiteman from northwest Iowa to Africa. Now, a three-part production tells the story of Arlene’s lifetime of teaching and nursing work in Sudan, Ethiopia and Zambia.
“I had no intention of going beyond Sudan,” Barker said of his work on the beginning of what is now “Arlene: An African Trilogy.” “(NW’s Drama Ministries Ensemble) ran (‘Sioux Center Sudan’) a couple of years. Then I went to Arlene and said, ‘Arlene, I know you had other experiences in Africa. Would you allow me to write about some of those?’”
The next segment of the story became “Iowa Ethiopia,” which the Drama Ministries Ensemble performed in Ethiopia. Just last year came the production of the last play in the series — “Zambia Home.”
“It just seemed right that we should put a punctuation mark on this journey by putting the whole thing together,” Barker said.
But combining three plays into one production has come with certain challenges. Each act was originally formatted as a single show, so some of the structure has changed slightly. Sophomore Brianne Hassman has been involved with Arlene’s story for her entire time at NW.
“A major difference is that ‘Zambia Home’ had these proverbs where someone would stand up and say a proverb that fit with that piece of Arlene’s life,” Hassman said. “That’s not a thing in the other two shows, so the structure of that one changed to work better with those. Staging is also a huge difference. We had to do it in a way we could tour with it and perform in any space.”
Another interesting feature of “Arlene: An African Trilogy” is the sheer number of characters.
“All of us except Christa (Arlene) play multiple characters,” Hassman said. “At least three.”
Hassman plays approximately 10 different roles; some of the other actors play many more.
“According to the script, there are around 130 characters,” student costume designer Amber Beyer said. “So, one of the hardest things was just figuring out how we were going to costume the show. We ended up going more simply and relying on the actors to do more of the work than the costumes. But we focused on characters that were more important in her life and reappeared throughout the play.”
The costume design stays on the simple side, but the simplicity is well-earned. Among the costumes and props are authentic African pieces of Arlene’s. In one scene, Arlene receives a book from students in Zambia. The book used onstage is the actual book the students gave her, and the gauzy white costume pieces worn in the scene are real Zambian costumes.
“This show is unique in that we’re telling the story of someone who lives in this area, and it’s not as distant as some other stories that we tell,” Beyer said. “I think it’s cool just because I was at church yesterday and I saw Arlene. It’s a story that’s a part of this community.”
Sophomore Abby McCubbin plays one of Arlene’s close friends, Vandy. Arlene met Vandy on the mission field in the Sudan, and Vandy currently lives in Massachusetts.
“I’ve loved being able to talk to and interview my own character who I’m portraying in the play,” McCubbin said. “You don’t usually get to do that in plays; you make the character up on your own. But with ‘Arlene,’ I actually had the chance to talk to Vandy.”
Arlene resides in Sioux Center now. She is planning to come see the show, a story that covers material from her middle school years all the way to the present.
Barker hopes that others can see the importance in sharing Arlene’s story.
“She really believes in a principle I believe in, and that is this: God did not make things happen in our lives to benefit only us,” Barker said. “In fact, perhaps a greater benefit is when the story is told to others. Then it acknowledges God’s work in our lives.”
“Arlene: An African Trilogy” will be performed at 6 p.m. on April 11, 24 and 25 and at 6:30 p.m. on April 12. On Saturday, April 26, and Sunday, April 27, the show will begin at 2 p.m. and will include African food between acts. Tickets for the April 26 and 27 performances are $15 and must be reserved in advance. All performances will be held in the England Proscenium Theatre.