Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine

by Lynn Nottage
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Wealth and Social Status

Throughout Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine, Lynn Nottage examines how privilege dictates Undine’s development as a character. At the beginning of the play, Undine, the executive of a posh PR firm, follows a rags-to-riches storyline trope. However, when her husband leaves her after embezzling money from her accounts, Undine loses her status as a wealthy businesswoman among the Manhattan elite. Consequently, Undine is forced to reconcile with her underprivileged past—and her successive attempts to erase her background—in order to re-evaluate her future.

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Furthermore, the play depicts the dangers of overzealous ambition. Given the glamorous allure of wealth and status, Undine essentially severs ties with her underprivileged family. At first, Undine emphasizes how her family history—in which her ancestors were brought to America on a slave ship—serves as a catalyst to her aspirational endeavors; she hence claims that declaring bankruptcy would be a betrayal to her ancestors. In act 1, scene 3, Undine laments this unprecedented shift in her lifestyle to her friend Allison, highlighting the differential treatment that privileged people of color face:

How naïve, foolish of me to assume I was worthy of some comfort and good fortune, and a better chance. They give you a taste, “How ya like it?” then promptly take it away. “Oh I’m sorry we’ve reached our quota of Negroes in the privileged class, unfortunately we’re bumping you down to working class.” Working. I’m not even working. I think I’m officially part of the underclass. Penniless. I’ve returned to my original Negro state, karmic retribution for being a little too pleased with my life.

In this quote, Undine communicates her frustration with how race factors into maintaining social status, while also hinting at her internalized shame toward her modest origins. Hence, she sees her bankruptcy—and subsequent dismantling of the fourteen years she spent building her company—as “karmic retribution” for her aspirations.

As the play progresses, however, Nottage underscores that this supposed punishment could be a result of Undine’s rejection of her family and her past. Accordingly, Flow confronts her about this rejection, stating, “there ain’t no greater crime than abandoning your history.” By the end of the play, Undine reflects upon this shame, apologetically recalling how she “locked herself in her dorm room and refused to come out” when her family came to her college graduation, deciding that she “bore no relationship to those people. . . . Understand, Sharona had to die in a fire in order for Undine to live.” Because of the unexpected twist in her social status, Undine expresses her guilt over abandoning her family, finally cognizant of the ways her elevated social status drove her internalized shame.

Emotional Awareness and Authenticity

In her turbulent journey toward learning how to love, Undine navigates various phases of emotional authenticity; as such, she becomes increasingly vulnerable in coping with her calamitous circumstances.

On one hand, Undine experiences differential treatment due to the shift in power dynamics after her husband embezzles her money. Accordingly, Nottage illustrates the disconnect between New York City elites and the working-class neighborhoods around them. At first, because she has expunged her working-class background from her history, Undine engrosses herself in the opulent lifestyle her success provides. She is thus initially in denial of her financial situation, continuing to display a domineering and condescending attitude to those around her.

For example, when she visits Herve in prison, he tells her,

I am who I was, querida, you are who you are. We are ugly people. We give, we take, we are even.

Upon realizing some truth in that description, Undine...

(The entire section contains 1243 words.)

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