A Family Manual for Kwanzaa

Available in Library

When holiday family dysfunction explodes, so does a world of traditional ethnic, social traditions. "A Family Manual for Kwanzaa" is a surreal and comic look at the disintegration of a family over the seven days holiday. This is a weird, dark comedy about my family, black history, and that strange step-sister of a holiday right after Christmas that we know as Kwanzaa.

STORY
This is a comedy that takes place around Kwanzaa. But it could just as easily be Passover, Christmas, Ramadan, or All Saints Day. The holiday is just the setting for the wishes, hopes, and dreams of a family to play out.

The tone of this story is ‘unusual happiness.’ In this setting, smiles and laughter come out of a sense of embarrassment and discomfort.

Read Sample

DAY 1: Umoja
The Telle family set up the room for Kwanzaa. Larry, Francis, Liza, and Bennett place props around the space.

FRANCIS
Come on, let’s hurry. Your grandparents are going to be here any minute. Be careful with the Mshumaa.

BENNETT
The what?

FRANCIS
The first candle.

BENNETT
Why didn’t you just say don’t break the candle?

FRANCIS
I want you guys to get comfortable with the terminology. Use the word bank I emailed everyone.

LIZA
The word bank is ridiculous.

LARRY
Let’s not gang up on your mother. She’s trying.

FRANCIS
Umoja.

BEAT

FRANCIS
That’s the greeting for the day.

LARRY
Right, right.

FRANCIS
And you’re supposed to say back to me...

LARRY
Umoja.

FRANCIS
No. ‘Habari Gani.’

BENNETT
So each day we have to say a different word of some sort and then say something else in response to it?

FRANCIS
Each day we celebrate a concept.

LIZA
You mean a concept like communism?

FRANCIS
No, like an ideal. Happiness, love, unity.

BENNETT
Ugh. This is like a Black cult. I can’t wait to move out of here.

FRANCIS
Anyway, in response to the idea for the day we always say ‘habari gani,’ which is like saying ‘ditto’ or ‘I heard that.’

BENNETT
Why don’t we just say ‘I heard that’ and simplify this?

FRANCIS
I’m going to ignore that because ‘Umoja’ means unity. This is the first day. This holiday is supposed to unite and bring us together to-

BENNETT grabs the remote control from Liza and turns on the TV. TV is located out toward the audience. The sound of cable news can be heard.

LIZA
Hey!

LARRY
Bennett.

BENNETT
Umoja.
LARRY
Bennett, turn the TV off.

BENNETT
You’re supposed to say Haberry Ganja.

FRANCIS
It’s Habari Gani.

BENNETT
Exactly.

FRANCIS
Habari Gani and turn that thing off. Your grandparents are coming soon and we want to show them unity. Hey, first one to show some Umoja wins Kwanzaa for the day.

LIZA
If we win Kwanzaa, does that mean we no longer have to do it? Like an immunity clause on a reality TV show.

FRANCIS
No.

BENNETT
But I like that idea.

FRANCIS
You win Kwanzaa and you get to…tell us about what that day means to you.

BENNETT
(turns off TV)
What this day means to me is unity around the TV.

FRANCIS
Bennett.

BENNETT
Wait, wait. Hear me out. We set up all the Kwanzaa stuff in front of the TV. Kwanzaa candles, Kwanzaa quilts, Kwanzaa cake, cookies, crayons. Now we bring the past of all these fake Nativity props and the mud/dirt thing-

FRANCIS
-that’s the Tambiko and it’s the water and soil sample-

BENNETT
-that’s just lovely. So we take Tambiko and all this stuff from the past and we set it in front of our TV. Black culture, Black life, Blackness. And we have like a multimedia display of Kwanzaa in the past (pointing to props), the present in us and the future (point out toward TV). And then our Kwanzaa becomes like this… fully-enmeshed, living, organic, holistic thingy.

LARRY
…that was actually a pretty convincing argument.

FRANCIS
Larry!

LARRY
Sorry, uh, Umoja.

FRANCIS
Habari Gani and really? ‘Holistic thingy’ is winning you over?
LIZA
I mean, if we’re going to watch TV anyway. Why not just use the holiday to watch…black TV?

BENNETT
Bingo. See, we’re uniting on this. Black TV: music videos…

LIZA
…Bad infomercials on hair straighteners and skin lighteners…

LARRY
A couple of Blaxploitation films. And we could watch some of those talk shows with women sitting around with giant coffee mugs and yelling at each other.

FRANCIS
I’m feeling a bit betrayed.

LARRY
Oh come on, honey. Everything is gonna be just fine. You know Papa gonna work it out for you.

LIZA
Gross Dad. Just gross.

FRANCIS
I’m gonna check on dinner. And while I’m gone I want you guys to really think about our ancestors and all they did. Really think about the suffering they endured so that we could have this freedom. You sit with that and then you decide if you want to squander it on watching TV or being together for a few precious days. Think about our ancestors. All I’m asking for is seven days of cooperation, seven days of acting like a family. Would it kill you jackasses to be together for one week? Think about the goddamn ancestors!!!
Francis exits. There’s a long solemn moment. Then Liza grabs the remote and turns on the TV.

LARRY
Liza.

LIZA
What?

LARRY
We’re supposed to be feeling guilty.

LIZA
I had a moment. I thought about the ancestors. It’s terrible.

BENNETT
And I think they would want us to watch TV.

LIZA
I do too. Umoja.

BENNETT
Hagani Berry. Once again, we are united. (fake African accent) Father. Giver of Life. Tree Bearing Fruit. Join the tribal circle.

Larry sits down as Liza flips through the channels. They land on a music video.

BENNETT
STOP!

Thumping bass music starts. VIDEO HOES bop around with dead soulless eyes. One holds champagne while the other has some car rims in her hand. RAP DUO, WIGGEDY WHACK are jamming.

BENNETT
Awww, Wiggedy Whack in the house. This is the jam right here.

WIGGEDY
Girl, you know I think I want to make you my wife

WHACK
-Yay-

WIGGEDY
We can be together, you and me for life

WHACK
-Fo’ sho-

WIGGEDY
But if you want to chill, run games and ride

WHACK
-Nut what-

WIGGEDY
Then you best believe you’re gonna open wide.

WHACK
After the show, it’s a little bit of Cris

WIGGEDY
-Sip, Sip-

WHACK
While we get pissy drunk and you reminisce

WIGGEDY
-zip, zip-

WHACK
Don’t act surprise, you know your way around

WIGGEDY
-beeyatch-

WHACK
Now it’s time for you take that trip downtown/ So…

WIGGEDY WHACK
Put my dick in your mouth
Put my dick in your mouth
Make a nigga happy, put my dick in your mouth

WIGGEDY
Can’t say nuttin’
With my dick in your mouth.

WHACK
Swallow all my babies
When my dick in yo’ mouth
I’ll buy a house
If ya open your blouse
Give a protein boost
When you chug- BENNETT
Swallow all my babies
When my dick in yo’ mouth
I’ll buy ya a house
If ya open your blouse
Give a protein boost
When you chug my juice...

Larry changes the channel.

BENNETT
HEY!

LARRY
What is wrong with your generation?

BENNETT
Dad, that was a classic.

LARRY
Pop music putrescence, that’s all that is.

LIZA
It’s cultural appropriation and degrading to women.

BENNETT
It’s not degrading to women. It’s degrading to everybody. Therefore it actually could be considered feminist music. It levels the playing field.

LIZA
Oh, please. You know, for someone who claims to like women so much, you sure do love talking about hitting ‘em, smacking ‘em, flipping ‘em.

LARRY
Maybe that’s why you don’t have a girlfriend.

BENNETT
Can we stop talking about this? I mean I thought we had a very lovely song playing to get us in the Kwanzaa spirit, but apparently I was wrong.

LARRY
Yes, you were. Umoja.

LIZA
Habari Gani.

BENNETT
And let the record show that I’ve seen you dancing to my music.

LIZA
…only in irony.

BENNETT
You can’t shake your ass in irony. Umoja!

Francis enters with more candles.

LARRY
New rule: they’ll be no more foul music in the house during Kwanzaa.

FRANCIS
That’s the spirit, honey. And I printed out the Kwanzaa word bank for everyone.

Francis hands out a sheet of paper to everyone.

LARRY
Poppa’s just laying down the law.

LIZA
Gross Dad.

FRANCIS
Then can Poppa explain to me why the TV is still on?

LARRY
I was just showing them the filth they are consuming. The stuff we have to turn away from as African Americans.

FRANCIS
Oh. Well I suppose that’s okay. Now, we gotta problem: I just got off the phone with Mema.

LARRY
And? What’s taking them so long?

FRANCIS
Opa is lost.

LARRY
Again?

FRANCIS
Honey, he’s in the opening stages of dementia. So we’re dealing with an ornery, angry, and lost man. And you know what they need to guide them home. My lil’ Poppa Smurf Navigator.

LARRY
Can I just talk them in?

FRANCIS
Larry.

LARRY
They’re at the same spot?

FRANCIS
At Denny’s sipping coffee, and waiting for you to arrive.

LARRY
Fine. I’ll go fetch the folks.

FRANCIS
Umoja, Larry.
LARRY
Yeah whatever.

Larry exits. Awkward silence.

FRANCIS
I’m guessing you guys have had a chance to think about the errors of your ways and reflect on our forefathers.

BENNETT
Sure, yeah yeah.

LIZA
Absolutely. Umoja!

Francis picks up the remote control.

FRANCIS
Look, I don’t hate TV. It’s just that for this one, slender moment in our life I want to focus on us and
FRANCIS (cont’d)
just being more of a family. Would you guys just stop!

As Francis is saying this, she hits the ‘pause’ button the remote. Suddenly Liza and Bennett freeze in mid-speech and gesture. They are in suspended animation.

FRANCIS
(turning around)
Now if we can just stop, and breathe, then I think we have…(looks at them) All right, quit playing around. Liza? Bennett?

Francis walks around them and pokes at their bodies. Then she looks at the remote control. She hits a button. And they unfreeze and continue moaning.

LIZA
We get it, Mom.

BENNETT
The ancestors, yeah yeah.

FRANCIS
I think I’m losing my mind.

BENNETT
We know: you’re krazy for Kwanzaa.

FRANCIS
No, it’s just…never mind. Why don’t you watch some TV? Maybe that will make everything all right.

BENNETT
You’re gonna to allow us TV time?

FRANCIS
Sure. As a family bonding activity until Opa and Mema arrive. How about I just change the channel to something more... therapeutic.

Francis points the remote control at them and presses a button. Then she keeps pressing it but nothing happens.

LIZA
Uh…Mom? We are not the TV.

BENNETT
The TV is that way.

FRANCIS
Right. I was just…checking the remote. (presses) Here we go.
Talk show music plays. Liza and BENNETT groan.

BENNETT
Ugh. Not the Althea show.

FRANCIS
She’s one of the few uplifting things on the air. And your mom watches her all the time.

LIZA
She makes me very uncomfortable.

FRANCIS
What’s the matter with you guys? “Essence” named her one of the most eligible black female billionaires over the age of 40.

ANNOUNCER
It’s the Althea Alice show. Now please give a hot, spicy, deep-fried, sista gurl hand for Althea.

Studio applause. Althea, a busty and sassy black woman enters with a microphone. She’s like a Wendy Williams-style talk show host. She pumps the crowd up with high fives and dancing with audience members.

ALTHEA
And we are back at the Althea Show and you know what we say: ‘hey, sista-gurl!’ We’re here wrapping up, ‘Ebony and Ivory Spiritual Awareness Week’ on the Althea Show. We are going to take some questions from the audience. So if any of y’all have any questions for Althea just raise your precious hands.

JENNA, a preppy woman, bounces up from her seat and toward Althea.
JENNA
Ohmygod, I can’t believe I’m here. ‘Hey sista’ gurl.’

ALTHEA
Hey sista gurl!

JENNA
Sista’ gurl Althea, you are a true inspiration in my life. (APPLAUSE) I remember my mom telling me about her
childhood in the south. And how she had this sassy black maid named Brenda, or Beulah or something. Well Beulah was always there for her. She was even breastfed by this wise, spiritual maid. And I realized that I never had a Beulah growing up. And it just made me so sad.

ALTHEA
That’s terrible, honeychild.

JENNA
Sista’ I got so depressed as a child that I would go into the kitchen and take out the Aunt Jemima syrup bottles and
JENNA (cont’d)
re-enact the maid quarters on one of those plantations. And I would be the matriarch and I would sit around with all my little Jemimas gossiping and giggling, you know, just like on a real plantation. We would laugh and talk about boys I liked. They would do my hair and scrub the floors while singing Motown songs. Every once in a while Uncle Ben would pop in and copulate with one of the Jemimas in front of us. We would all just sit around, watching and giggling as Ben moaned and wheezed, because of his emphysema. We would giggle and point as Ben worked himself into a frenzy. Before -you know- his climax, Ben would try to pull out in time so there wouldn’t be any more Jemimas and Bens, because he was sick of bringing babies into the world and watching them get sold off by the master. It was so cute.

ALTHEA
Sounds like you have a fruitful imagination.

JENNA
My therapist says it’s schizophrenia. But back to the plantation: one day Uncle Ben got drunk off sake and
flew into an alcoholic rage. He raped all the Aunt Jemimas and broke their necks, before he off’ed himself with a shotgun. It was the saddest day of my life. And
as I sat there crying in a brown pool of their severed heads, blood and love spunk, I saw your show come on the
TV. My whole life changed. Althea, I just want to say that you are like those maids to me. The way you laugh
and shuffle gives me goose bumps. It’s so exactly like I imagined it. You sitting there like a rotund voodoo goddess, comforting all the plantation wives who-

ALTHEA
-Plantation?

JENNA
Sorry, I mean housewives. I don’t know if I speak for everyone when I say this, but: I suck at the teet of your mysterious, but down-home sista’ gurl wisdom.

Jenna weeps. Althea goes over to comfort her, strokes her hair and Jenna clings to her. She sits down and puts Jenna in her lap. Althea thinks for a moment and then knows what she has to do. As if she’s used to it by now, Althea yanks down her blouse and slides one cup off her breast. She puts Jenna’s head to her nipple, letting her partake of her nourishment. As Althea nurses Jenna, she hums a negro spiritual, first softly and then with growing passion.

ALTHEA
Mmmhmmm…mm-mm-mmm,
Hmmm-mm-mm-mmmmm!
This little light of mine,
I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine
mmm…hmmm…(upbeat tempo)
mmm-hmm…hmm…hmmm
(skatting)skittle-be-bop-a-dip-do-whop-pam-bo-zip-pety-zam-bam-bo! (cringes)Oh! (She adjusts herself) Careful with dem teef, gurl.’

LIZA
Turn it!

FRANCIS
I can’t.

BENNETT
TURN IT!

FRANCIS
The button is stuck!

ALTHEA
Who else wants to be nourished?

APPLAUSE. Althea begins undoing her other cup. FRANCIS manages to turn the TV off. They stand there, panting for a few moments. They all sit. Francis places the remote control down. She attempt to speak a few times and then gives up. Larry re-enters.

LARRY
Well they are here. All in one piece. I tried to show the
LARRY (cont’d)
old man, once again, what exit to take. But he wouldn’t hear of it, so he just followed me. Mema is in the bathroom. Oh, we just have one little problem: Opa has locked himself in the car and refuses to come out. But he’s gotta poop some time so we should be fine.

Larry looks at his family who appears to be in shock.

LARRY
Is everything all right?

FRANCIS
Honey, the TV is broken.

LARRY
But it was working fine a few minutes ago. What’s wrong with it?

FRANCIS
The remote.

LARRY
Oh, it probably just needs a new battery. I can fix it.

BENNETT
Maybe it’s better if you didn’t.

LIZA
We can just let it be.

LARRY
Do my ears deceive me or are you guys ready to turn off the tube and come together for some family bonding?

FRANCIS
(shaken up)
Ben and Liza, why don’t go wash up and set the table for dinner? Your father and I will go lure Opa out of the car and get anything they need from trunk. And then let’s reconvene here in five minutes to light the, uh, thingy.

BENNETT
The Mshumaa.

FRANCIS
What? Oh, right. That. Yes, we will light the Mshumaa and the first day of Kwanzaa will commence. (under breath) God help us.

LARRY
What?

FRANCIS
I said God bless us. Each and every one. Now go.

Bennett and Liza exit.

LARRY
So who’s going to be the hostage negotiator this time?

FRANCIS
Well you wrangled them here. It’s only fair that I talk Opa out of the car before he makes a mess of the upholstery.

LARRY
Then I’ll go see about Mema.

Francis and Larry exits.
Mema, a snow-haired Black woman, shuffles in on a walker. She looks around, sees no one and keeps shuffling. She grabs the remote and turns on the TV. The lights flicker and Mema gets scared that she did something wrong. She exits. Francis re=enters looking for Mema. An announcer’s voice booms from heavens.

ANNOUNCER
Cracked wide open. Can you feel it? Ancestral electricity. Coursing molecules, floating in the air like little pixels. A swirling vortex of dots churned out by a pulsing red device. Pumping out millions of specks joining together, forming a sea of images. Cresting waves and whirlpools. Sealed inside a portal. And when that looking glass cracks. SMASH! HA! Wide open! Wide open.

Cast Requirements

5W, 5M

FAMILY CHARACTERS
(ranked in order of privilege)
1. Larry – father, 40s-50s
2. Francis – mother, 40s-50s
3. Bennett – son, 20s
4. Liza – daughter, teenager
5. Mema – grandmother, 80s

TV CHARACTERS
1. Wiggedy Whack – white rap duo: WW
2. Althea- talk show empress/TV chef/pet therapist
3. Rap Video Hoes /Showgirls – seductive mistresses of champagne and car rims.
4. Jenna – talk show audience member.
5. Announcer – voice that can be embodied on stage or pre-recorded.

All the roles should be played by an ensemble of 8-10 actors. The family is comprised of 5 African American actors. Mema and Althea should be played by the same African American actress. The roles of Wiggedy Whack and Announcer are played by the same 2 actors: White males who can be in the age range of 20-40s. The roles of Video Hoes, Showgirls, and Jenna should be played by 2 women: one is white and one who is non-Black. Both of the actresses are in the age range of 20-40s.

If you are looking for a cast of 8, then Wiggedy Whack and Video Hoes can be played by two white actors (one male and one female) who will share all four roles.

The characters ages and who can play them are flexible. Ideally the son and daughter should be in their early to late 20s. The mother and father should feel like they’re in their 40s to late 50s. The grandparents should feel like they’re in the 60s-80s, however they should probably be played by actors who are in the 30s-50s, because there is a lot of role-doubling.

Set Description

The story is set in one of those prefab containers known as suburban house. It’s a box that’s stapled and glued together, and then dropped into the middle of the swamps of South Florida. The play centers around a Kwanzaa table replete with the various pieces necessary for a holiday: a Mkeka (straw mat), Muhindi (ears of corn), Zawadi (small gifts), Kikombe Cha Umoja (unity cup), Tambiko (water and soil sample). At the center of the table is the Kinara (candle holder) with the Mishuma Saba (seven candles). In the back hangs a Bendera Ya Taifa (Flag of the Black Nation).

Press

Broadway World

Press

Production and Development History

- reading at The Juilliard School, 2015
- developed at NNPN's MFA Wokshop at The Kennedy Center