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Letting Her Enemies Live Long: A trip to Africa forms the core of Tanya Shaffer's newest play.

One-woman acting troupe Tanya Shaffer turns her travels into theater

By Michelle Goldberg

I WISH I WERE Tanya Shaffer. Her life is self-created, full of the kind of globe-trotting adventures most of us will only dream of. Her life is also tenuous and unpredictable in ways that would terrify a less confident woman.

An accomplished actor and travel writer, Shaffer is currently getting ready to tour her latest performance piece, Let My Enemy Live Long, a one-woman show inspired by her journeys as a lone white woman in Africa, and finishing a book on the same subject. The show (which has been running in San Francisco and plays March 23 at Palo Alto High School) is hilarious, ironic and compassionate all at once--political without ever being pedantic.

Shaffer's success has come despite, or perhaps because of, the way she's ignored the rules of survival in the entertainment industry, taking off for points unknown just as her acting career was gaining momentum, then coming home and making a splash by performing shows about her trips. Based in the Bay Area, she purposely works outside the limelight of New York or L.A., although there's already talk of her latest piece running Off-Broadway.

It's easy to idealize a nomadic, Bohemian life when you've got nothing to lose; it's quite another thing to choose that path over the comforting clutches of a remunerative career and a stable community. "I remember thinking when I started the trip to Africa like I'd made a narrow escape from a normal life," Shaffer explains. As she says at the beginning of Let My Enemy Live Long, "I figure it's my life, and if I want to run from it, I can."

I'll admit, going into Let My Enemy Live Long, I was dreading the boredom that often accompanies a dose of earnest progressive culture. What's so impressive about Shaffer's piece, though, is that it may be good for you, but it tastes great too. Let My Enemy Live Long is not only intellectually stimulating and politically provocative but also rivetingly entertaining, tackling issues of racism, religion and the search for meaning with exuberant humor and deep respect for human contradictions.

At one point in the show, Shaffer muses, "Is there such a thing as a pure, personal connection at any time, in any place, let alone between one with shoes and one without?" It's a profound question that lends a richness and universality to the whole piece. I walked out of Let My Enemy Live Long in a sublime daze, feeling not just enlightened but lightened, too.

AS THE PLAY BEGINS, Shaffer is squeezing her way into a boat that is to take her up the Niger River to the mythical city-turned-tourist-trap Timbuktu. Immediately, she is befriended by Torré, a buffoonish but goodhearted would-be shoe salesman who introduces Tanya to some of the more unsavory aspects of African racial politics. Tanya is especially shocked by his contempt for American blacks and by his worshipful attitude toward Western capitalism.

"A Ghanian friend started saying the kinds of things that Torré says in the show about black Americans--'Those American blacks are lazy, and they could be getting rich, but they're all criminals,' " Shaffer says. "When I heard that, I got into a screaming fight with that guy. I was quite shocked and surprised when another African friend said to me, 'We had no civilization before the white man came, we were living in the trees.' Which is so clearly not true, given that Africa has the oldest civilization on Earth. When he said that, I was stunned at the level at which colonial education had penetrated."

In the show, Tanya also meets and falls in love with a deeply kind, almost magical minister. Midway through the trip, the boat sinks, one passenger is killed and everyone else is stranded. Tanya, Torré and the minister soon find themselves in a tiny nomadic village before making the rest of the trip by canoe.

Although Let My Enemy Live Long is a one-woman show, it feels like a play, one in which Shaffer just happens to play every part. Like monologist Anna Deavre Smith, Shaffer captures her characters' multifarious voices and manners without seeming parodic. Also amazing is her sheer physical energy as she dashes around the stage assuming different roles.

One of the best parts of the show is a confrontation between Tanya and a black woman who moved to Africa to escape L.A., only to be enraged by how Africans look down on her while fawning over white visitors. Portraying herself as nervous, chipper and a little insipid and the other woman as seething and bitter but dignified, Shaffer raises critical questions about white privilege and middle-class cultural tourism. The passage is deeply melancholic about the way human relationships are poisoned by racial tension.

For a white woman even to take on this kind of material is risky. Shaffer's sometimes comic portrayal of her characters' voices and accents works wonderfully, but the smallest shift in tone could have made her impersonations seem like offensive caricatures. "I was very conscious of that, but I can't say I was really worried about it," Shaffer tells me.

She had dealt with similar issues in her last play, Brigadista, a story about watching the Nicaraguan elections in 1990. Although she didn't play the Hispanic characters in that show, she still wrote them.

"What I realized is that there are always people who will be critical, and with good reason, of a show set in Central America or in Africa with a white person as the hero," she explains. "But I feel like it's really important that the issues get addressed, and that white people address the issues. It's really important that white people write pieces about racism. I can't write it from a Central American perspective and I can't write it from an African perspective. I have to write it from my own perspective."

DESPITE HER works' exotic locales, Shaffer says, in a way her stories are all at least partly about America. "I have a real passion for travel, and I feel like when I get outside the country, it helps me get a perspective. In many ways, I'm still writing about this country and this culture, but I'm writing about it through the lens of travel in other cultures."

Traveling has always been a part of her life. Her father, a refugee from Nazi Austria, spent a lot of time in Europe when she was growing up, and she lived in Vienna when she was 11. She took her first trip alone when she was 19; she and a friend were set to leave for a volunteer work project in Czechoslovakia, but her friend bailed out at the last minute.

"I was really afraid, but I wasn't going to cancel it at that point," Shaffer recalls. "I really wanted to go, so I went by myself, and that was when I discovered how much I love to travel alone."

Through a combination of passion, talent and luck, Shaffer has been able to combine her need to escape America with a career in which staying in the public eye is paramount. To do so, she's had to take an enormous risk, putting her acting on hold while she went exploring, anchored by the confidence that her art would be there when she was ready to return to it.

"My acting career definitely lost a lot of momentum when I went away to Africa for a year," she admits. "I was kind of building name recognition, and when I came back I didn't work for about four months, which feels like a long time when you're an actor. But I believed and believe to this day that even though I lost momentum, ultimately it was so good for me. ... And now, finally I'm doing this show, and my stories are being published, so it seems like the career benefits are coming five years later. Ultimately, for my bigger goals I'd rather have the life experience and be able to build my acting and writing side by side."

For many of us, our dreams of traveling are scaled smaller and smaller as we grow older. That's why it's inspiring to see someone like Shaffer turn her back on all the ladder-climbing imperatives and still come out on top.

"I made a goal for myself on the Africa trip pretty early on. I went through Europe to Africa, and I was in the gardens of Versailles, wandering around barefoot, and I made a deal with myself that the goal of this trip was just to live it as well as I could. I was not going to make a goal to write something about it, so that if I did nothing on that trip but live it, it would be a success. But I said I'm going to live it as well as I can. Every moment, I'm going to be there for it."

Let My Enemy Live Long, a one-woman show by Tanya Shaffer, plays Tuesday (March 23) at 8pm at the Palo Alto High School. Tickets are $10.

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From the March 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro.

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