Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine

by Lynn Nottage

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Undine Barnes Calles

Undine is the protagonist and narrator of the play. At thirty-seven years old, she is introduced as a “smartly dressed African American woman” who founded a “very fierce boutique PR firm” in New York City fourteen years ago. Raised in Brooklyn with the birth name Sharona, Undine left home at thirteen and went on to attend Dartmouth College before moving to Manhattan as an adult. She describes herself as a bright child, and in the first scene of the play, she comes off as intense, rather self-absorbed, and obsessed with social status and celebrity. A fast talker and compulsive coffee drinker, Undine exemplifies typical personality traits of a wealthy Manhattan executive.

Feeling ashamed of her underprivileged upbringing, particularly within her circle of wealthy elites, Undine has made a strong effort to erase her past, subsequently cutting herself off from her family. Accordingly, when an article about her appears in Black Enterprise and Undine is incorrectly quoted as saying her family died in a tragic fire, she feels no compulsion to change this narrative, eventually coming to believe this revision of her history to be true. Bolstered by wealth and success, Undine thus becomes involved in what she refers to as “Vanity Fair” circles, where she meets her husband, Herve, at a “much too fabulous” New Year’s Eve party, marrying him eleven months later.

In the first scene of the play, however, Undine’s confidence and comfort in the glamorous lifestyle she has built is shattered: she has to declare bankruptcy after her Argentine husband, Herve, embezzles her money and leaves her. Additionally, she soon after realizes that she is pregnant.

Forced to reconcile these undesirable changes to her life, Undine comes to recognize how her success has made her selfish, additionally enabling her blindness in seeing how her actions affect others. Through self-discovery—ironically, partly due to the drug recovery she is sentenced to, despite not being an addict—Undine experiences the consequences of rejecting her personality and learns to embrace her family’s love, as well as the prospect of romance with Guy.


Undine describes Stephie, her assistant, as “a spacy twenty-something.” Although Undine does act condescending to her, they appear to have a warm relationship. Months after Undine declares bankruptcy and moves in with her parents, she runs into Stephie stocking shelves at Duane Reade. Having struggled to find work, she now works at the pharmacy but asserts that the job is “just temporary” and “about paying a few bills.” After Stephie chuckles at the idea of Undine being a mother, they part ways, but before leaving, Stephie turns back and asks her if she is happy.


Undine’s accountant, Richard, appears in the first scene of the play to inform her of her dire financial situation. Before he enters the room, Undine cries and then tells Stephie to “send the little pussy in.” Later, lightly accusing him of betrayal, Undine mentions in front of Stephie that the two of them may have had drunken sex in the past.


Herve is Undine’s husband, and before the play begins, she discovers that he has left her. When Undine learns that he also disappeared with her money, she expresses her disdain for him, though the scene ends with her reminiscing about the night they met at a fancy New Year’s Eve party in the city. Undine explains how Herve, who is also from Argentina, can be a romantic, and that she instantly fell in love with him; moreover, she enjoyed that “he permitted [her] to travel in circles [she’d] only read about in Vanity Fair.”


(This entire section contains 1196 words.)

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Undine visits Herve in prison in act 2, he comes off as snobby and cavalier in their interaction, telling her that they are both ugly people and that he accepts this truth about himself.


Allison is Undine’s best friend, and her life path very much mirrors Undine’s. Also among the elite New York City crowd, Allison came from a “modest childhood in the Langston Hughes public houses” and now owns an apartment on the Upper East Side and a house on Martha’s Vineyard. Similar to Undine, her good fortune was broken after her husband appeared in a gay porn magazine, ostracizing her from privileged social circles.


When Undine’s family is introduced in act 1, scene 4, her parents and her grandmother are described as “straightforward and no-nonsense people.” Her mother, father, and brother work long hours as security guards, and Undine later mentions that, growing up, her mother took extra shifts at work just to buy Undine a new coat every year. As the matriarch of the family, Undine’s mother is compassionate, loving, and fierce, qualities which are evident in her hospitality and her willingness to forgive Undine.


Undine’s father embraces his Brooklyn roots, unlike her, and displays fierce pride for his African heritage. He works hard to support his family and, along with Undine’s mother, has been a security guard at Long Island University for many years; to her frustration, however, he spends an unreasonable amount of money on lottery tickets. When he discusses the recent death of his friend Velvet, he mentions having served in the army during the Vietnam War.


Undine’s brother, Flow, also a security guard with a deep commitment to his roots, “is a hipster with a tatty Afro and goatee and a habit of speaking a bit too loudly.” He lightly mocks Undine’s lavish lifestyle, and the two bicker in a typical sibling fashion. Most evidently out of all the characters, Flow challenges Undine’s selfish actions and shameful attempts to erase her history. The poem he recites in act 2 reflects his feelings toward her, and he is the first in the family to confront Undine about the article mentioning that her family died in a fire.


Diabetic and confined to a wheelchair, Undine’s grandma has a warm demeanor but laments having lived a “perpetually gray life.” Undine discovers that her grandmother is a heroin addict when Grandma nonchalantly asks Undine for her “medicine.” She tells Undine that she has been using heroin ever since her husband died and expresses disillusionment over “the ordinariness of [her] life” and finding herself “curiously farther away” from God. When Undine agrees to buy more heroin on the street for her grandmother, she is arrested and sentenced to six months of drug counseling.


Guy, whom Undine met in her drug recovery program, becomes her love interest at the end of the play. When she meets him, he tells her that her pregnancy is a blessing. Because his understated demeanor and confidence intrigue her, Undine agrees when he unexpectedly asks her out on a date, telling the audience,

His sincerity is sickening. He has none of Herve’s charm, which makes him all the more charming.

Later, Guy offers to go to birthing classes with Undine and be there when she gives birth. Because the prospect of love and commitment frightens Undine, Guy’s compassionate affection toward her feels foreign. Ultimately, though, she finds his authenticity appealing and feels empowered to pursue a relationship with him.