'Tea in Tripoli'

A young Englishwoman's year of living dangerously

Bernadette Nason
Bernadette Nason

When it comes to Libya, no one can tell you what will happen there. But for someone to tell you what did happen there, back in the days of Ronald Reagan's America – and more significantly, Margaret Thatcher's England – you need look no further than City Theatre, where for a couple of weeks Bernadette Nason will share the alternately hilarious and harrowing yarn of her year in that North African nation. Tea in Tripoli condenses to 90 minutes the 12 months that Nason spent working for an Italian oil company in Libya. In 1984, the job of secretary to the director of production and offshore development sounded quite attractive to a twentysomething Englishwoman eager to get away from her homeland following a broken engagement (among other things), but that was largely because she didn't know much of anything about the country where she'd be working or the despot who ran it. And when she did learn about them, well, the ink on her one-year contract was already dry. So off Nason went to Tripoli, where the locals had little enthusiasm for English nationals – and even less for English women – but with the fatal shooting of British police officer Yvonne Fletcher outside the Libyan Embassy in London that April, which led the UK to sever all diplomatic ties to Libya, the status of Brits in that land plummeted to a new low. "Her death changed everything," Nason recalls by email. "The ambassador left, the embassy closed (in which there was the only library in the whole of Tripoli – our only source of books since all reading matter was confiscated by Customs on arrival). From that moment on, we were treated with even less respect than before, particularly we women. It was as if we'd become terrorists overnight. The kids were scared of us; shopkeepers wouldn't serve us; the unwelcome attention from men became more aggressive." It made Nason's year there feel much, much longer.

Of course, she survived and made it out of Libya intact, and this actress and professional storyteller has had 27 years to polish her stories of cooking a just-plucked chicken from scratch, smuggling bacon, homemade hooch, mad expats, and run-ins with the morality police. Mostly, she's shared them in disconnected fragments with her colleagues in the theatre, reeling off this anecdote or that one before dressing-room mirrors and during post-show rounds of drinks. (The stories are so choice that Nason even gets requests for them – and for show folk to ask someone else to talk, that's saying something.) Several years ago, Nason tried collecting them into a half-hour monologue, which worked pretty well, but then she was inspired to fashion a more elaborate presentation out of her experience.

"When my mother died in 2007, I discovered she'd kept all of my letters from the time I lived there – we wrote to each other every week – and those letters stirred up a lot of memories I'd forgotten," she says. "I began to recall everything in more detail. And now, this year, Libya is back in the news once more and the stories seem more relevant. There's no vanity about the work; I come over like an idiot much of the time! But I believe it's interesting to hear about the culture, even from another person's POV."

Nason has asked Michael Stuart, her old friend and cohort in many a theatrical adventure, to stage this personal adventure of hers for the City Theatre's Summer Acts! Austin 2011 festival. While it's true that Tea in Tripoli won't tell you anything about the state of Libya in the present or the future, it will tell you plenty about that land in the recent past. In fact, I have so much faith in Nason's skills as a storyteller, I daresay the show may convince you that you've made the journey there yourself.


Tea in Tripoli will be performed Thursday, July 7, 7pm; Sunday, July 10, 8pm; Tuesday, July 12, 7pm; Thursday, July 14, 9pm; Saturday, July 16, 8pm; and Sunday, July 17, noon, at the City Theatre, 3823-D Airport. For more information, call 454-4925 or email bnason@austin.rr.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Tea in Tripoli, Bernadette Nason, Michael Stuart, City Theatre, Summer Acts! Austin, Summer Acts Austin

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