Fabulation, or The Re-Education of Undine

by Lynn Nottage

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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 reconciles with...

(This entire section contains 1249 words.)

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the ugly things she’s done and recognizes how her ambition and affluence has blinded her. Instead of responding directly to Herve, Undine addresses the audience, asserting,

I’ve prided myself on not needing love, but it was different when I thought I was loved.

Her display of vulnerability in this statement is a testament to her emotional development, and she acknowledges how much she has avoided facing her own feelings.

Further, despite not actually being an addict in recovery, Undine significantly benefits from drug counseling. At the beginning of act 2, she describes the strange catharsis she feels after sharing a made-up story of addiction for the first time:

And I concoct a tale so pathetically moving that I am touched by my own invention and regret not having experienced the emotions first hand. But the tears are genuine. I am crying. And I weep and I am applauded by the room of addicts and it is exhilarating. A rush. And I understand addiction.

In this monologue, her unintended emotional response to her own lies further broadens Undine’s range of self-awareness. This string of ill-fated events—her husband’s abandonment, the following bankruptcy and investigation, her arrest, and her pregnancy—forces Undine to examine the mistakes of her past.

During a recovery meeting in the penultimate scene, Undine tells Guy that she has “explored the full range of rage,” and although she claims that she is “not a very good human being,” she illuminates her renewed sense of emotional awareness by both acknowledging this rage and expressing a desire to make amends for the pain she has caused her family.

The Transitory Nature of Time

While Undine undergoes her “re-education” over the course of the play, she learns how to confront the inevitability of change. Thrust into accepting a new reality, Undine first experiences an identity crisis, dramatically blaming her misfortune on karma. She consequently exhibits self-pity and frustration when catastrophizing the changes she faces, such as in the following response to her mother:

It isn’t a phone call! It’s . . . It’s a phantom poem that won’t ever be completed, it’s thousands of dollars of lotto tickets that should have been invested in the stock market, it’s a thrown-away solution and, Mom, you’re still searching for words.

By referring to this pattern of failed decision as “a phantom poem,” Undine still clings to her belief that external causes led to her present predicament. Without looking internally, she is unable to see how her own actions and behavior may have led her to this point. In response, Undine’s brother, Flow, starts passionately reciting a poem:

It ’bout who we be today
And in our fabulating way.
’bout saying that we be
without a-pology.
It’s a circle that been run
That ain’t no one ever won.
It that silly rabbit grin.
’bout running from your skin. . . .

With these lines, Flow suggests to Undine that her present misfortune could result from abandoning her past, rejecting her family, and attempting to rebrand herself with a false narrative. The poem thus underscores that no one can run from the past, and no one can control the future; therefore, change is the only constant. As Grandma tells Undine after revealing her heroin addiction,

Change be what it will. I’d say it were crazy if it wasn’t so necessary.

In emphasizing the importance of change—especially its role in driving internal growth—Nottage also takes care to illuminate that love does have an everlasting force. Undine expresses fear in this notion, but through recognizing that both her family and Guy have genuine affection for her, she learns to balance the forces of change. Accordingly, when she gives birth at the end of the play, she earnestly embraces the potency of love for the first time.