Walking into The Lounge Theatre for the world premiere of “Take Me to the Poorhouse,” one is struck by the possibilities of a practically empty stage. With only a knee-high square box on one side of the stage and a shallow square-shaped step on the other, it’s difficult to believe the petite actor, Liz Femi, will enter and not only fill up the stage, but enlarge it into a middle class Nigerian kitchen, a classroom closet, a shanty one-room neighbor’s house, and a street scene with story-hungry kids sharing in a circle.
Writer and Performer Liz Femi was born in England, but raised in Nigeria. She has performed in theatre, film and television and holds two Masters degrees, one in Education, the other in acting from Harvard. The play opens with Femi as 8-year old Lizzie who is trying to negotiating her drab middle class existence with her romanticized version of the colorful working class poor in her hometown in Nigeria.
Lizzie begins by telling a couple of dismal your-mama is-so-fat jokes and we quickly indentify the crux of her problem and the theme of the play: the creative imagination. It is through the lens of books and movies that Lizzie views the world. Problem is she thinks that only through suffering, namely being poor, can she ignite her own creativity and be as interesting as her fellow classmates. Specifically, Lizzie will go to any length to win over the object of her heart, even if she has to sing “Hopelessly Devoted to You” to the kid in front of all their classmates.
The boy is unimpressed, but it gives Lizzie the idea of emulating “Sandy” from her favorite movie, “Grease.” Lizzie decides she’ll transform her image by starving herself, begging for food, wearing 3-day-old clothing and burning her scalp for a Jerry curl in her efforts to get the boy. When her father comes home unemployed and later they lose their house, Lizzie realizes her prayers have come true: She’s poor!
I’ve seen my share of theater over time, with everything from minimalist to elaborate sets, and, save for “The Lion King,” Femi’s home, school, streets and neighborhood are as vivid as real life. You know how the book is always better than the movie because you have the benefit of your limitless imagination? That’s what Liz Femi catalyzes for the audience: an entire Nigerian neighborhood with all of its unique inhabitants, smells, sights, and sounds. Besides Lizzie herself, Femi’s most dynamic characterization is that of Wali (hopefully I’ve spelled it correctly), a classmate with a cleft lip that Lizzie initially pities, eventually disdains and finally discovers to be the coolest kid in the neighborhood.
Eventually, Lizzie realizes being poor isn’t all it’s hyped up to be, but what endures, what always endures is her curiosity and thirst for life. By the end of the play, Lizzie, scorned by the boy she so desperately wanted to reciprocate her love, finally has the life experience to belt out a your-mama-is-so-fat joke to put him to shame. With the expert direction of veteran Jane Morris, “Take Me to the Poorhouse,” has the transformative power of great theater.