What’s in a Name?

Laura Russell
Laura Russell (Gladys)

by Laura Russell

When I was a little girl, I wanted a nickname.  Laura seemed too staid, too responsible.  I wanted to be Laurie (or even Lori!), so much cooler than the skinny, well behaved, studious child I was.  My parents and teachers did not comply, however, and I remained Laura.  Nicknames did come and go, none lasting more than a few years, and now my adult self loves being Laura.  It is my real name, the one I identify as me. I have come to understand the importance of naming things true. Your true name is the name that matches your essential self.

In reading and preparing for my role in A Lesson From Aloes, I became fascinated by the importance given to names. When we first meet Piet Bezuidenhout, he is obsessed with naming an unidentified species of aloe, as if getting the name right will reveal the true nature of the plant. It is no accident that Piet’s wife, Gladys, calls him Peter.  She anglicizes his name to fit her worldview. Early in the play, Piet, in a moment both tender and anxious, asks his wife Gladys what she thought of his name when they first met.  Her reply reveals much about their marriage. Piet’s friend, Steve, is the descendant of indigenous African peoples and Dutch and British colonists, yet his name, and his father’s, reflect only the white colonial cultures.  In a painful reminiscence, Steve recalls the nickname his father was given by white South Africans, a diminutive that dismisses and emasculates him.
Fugard’s use of names in the play – what people and things are called, when they’re named and by whom – gives us insight into the characters’ motives, their personalities, and the environment in which they live.  It becomes apparent that the right name is powerful because it captures one’s soul.
A LESSON FROM ALOES April 29 – May 29, 2016 at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, where Quotidian is the Resident Theatre Company. Tickets are available now

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