“I was the youngest member of the Legation, the one most newly arrived from America…”
There’s a touch of Isak Dinesen’s wistful remembrance of Africa in Ruth Wolfe Weems’ writing on her years in Tangier. A bit of the postwar sense of loss after the adventures, the thrill of exotic surroundings, the challenges of being a 23 year old from North Carolina swept up in the maelstrom that was Interzone Tangier. The Best Years of Our Lives, in a way, with a feminine twist.
There are stalwart US Navy petty officers, superstitious Spanish maids and haggling Moroccan merchants, and menacing Axis agents in Dorothy Weems’ one-woman play, set in the Tangier of World War II. Miss Wolfe’s Tangier Stories: Memories of a Young Woman’s Sojourn in Tangier 1944 – 1946, made its world debut at the Legation on Saturday June 2.
“There was Dick Burgess, the cloak-and-dagger man… ” Young Ruth Wolfe was a code clerk, processing cable traffic on often-sensitive war information. A code clerk had to watch out for threatening Axis agents. Even R & R flights could be risky maneuvers.
Dorothy Weems has woven her mother’s wartime stories – some published in the postwar Carolina Quarterly – into a tapestry of that fascinating era. At the time, Tangier, International Zone was occupied by troops from Franco’s Spain, and there’s a definite Spanish flavor in the play: young Ruth is señorita to most people, and pesetas the currency.
Dorothy Weems, Ruth’s youngest daughter and a theatre and TV actress, has written and acted this play with a passion that was evident to our standing room only (we had to turn latecomers away) crowd. People could “see” the Tangier of the Forties, helped by the venue of the Legation, with our best attempts to create a set that brought back that era.
Relying on her mother’s stories – both published and the stories that parents share with their children – Dorothy Weems researched pronunciation of phrases reflecting the polyglot Tangier that her mother found so fascinating. Dorothy’s dedication to getting the details right knew no bounds – her successful quest for period style black-hemmed hose even took her to a “specialty shop,” shall we say, in her native Huntsville, Alabama.
The setting – and the timing – couldn’t have been better, as the performance was included in the program of “Performing Tangier,” which meant a built-in audience of theatre experts from Morocco, Europe, and North America, many of whom were particularly impressed with the “site-specific” performance. The leadup to the curtain-opening was filled with a slideshow of Ruth Wolfe Weems’ photos from her Tangier days, with a nice Forties soundtrack (Glenn Miller, film music from Casablanca).
Particularly touching were the comments by the audience in Dorothy’s signature book:
- “My father was in North Africa during the war, and your mother’s work would have been important to him”
- “Excellent recreation of the time”
- “Brought me into the 1940s. Thanks for the ride!”
- “A voyage through time on a human scale”
Dorothy Weems hopes to perform her play in front of Stateside audiences, but ours was the unique treat: witnessing daughter play mother, in the very place – the Tangier American Legation – which made such an impression on young Miss Wolfe. Pretty hard to top that.