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Originally published Friday, April 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Out of Africa: Novelist's story becomes a play

"The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," an adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Dinaw Mengestu, hits the stage at Book-It Repertory Theatre through May 9.

Seattle Times theater critic

Theater preview

"The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears"

Produced by Book-It Repertory Theatre, opens tonight and runs Wednesdays-Sundays and some Tuesdays through May 9 at Center House Theatre, Seattle Center; $15-$40 (206-216-0833 or www.book-it.org).

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As a young child, writer Dinaw Mengestu left his birthplace of Ethiopia with his parents, fleeing the ravages of a bloody civil war to resettle in Washington, D.C.

And recently Mengestu swapped cultures again. He now lives happily in Paris, with his French fiancee, as a "semi-permanent" Parisian.

But he also knows well the down side of transplanting oneself in new soil. That's what his acclaimed debut novel, "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," a keenly observed work of rare sensitivity, is about.

A 2008 Seattle Reads pick, the work has now spun off a Book-It Repertory Theatre piece, adapted by Kevin McKeon, which premieres here tonight.

Speaking by phone from Paris, Mengestu seemed comfortable with his own global transitions. "I came here a year and a half ago to meet with a publisher, and I loved the city and decided to stay a few months," said the personable author.

"Of course, my fiancee is from here, and we're getting married on July 4. But I also like the sense in Paris that literature really matters. A value is placed on books and the written word, which is missing right now in the U.S."

"The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears," which won an LA Times First Book Prize and other honors, was "based very little on my own personal life," according to Mengestu.

He grew up in a middle-class family, in the suburbs. By contrast, the novel's protagonist, Sepha Stephanos (portrayed in the show by local actor Sylvester Foday Kamara, originally from Sierra Leone), is an Ethiopian immigrant running a small grocery in a poor, inner-city D.C. enclave in the 1970s.

Unmarried, lonely, his business failing, Stephanos still feels like an outsider after 17 years in the U.S. His main sources of solace are his friendships with two other African immigrants, from Kenya and Congo, and a fledgling bond with a white woman and her biracial daughter, who've just moved in nearby.

When printed in 2007, "All The Beautiful Things Heaven Bears" won high praise. The New York Times Book Review hailed it as "a great African novel, a great Washington novel and a great American novel."

And many impressed reviewers noted that Mengestu had crafted a different sort of immigrant saga than the standard rags-to-riches tale.

"African people have come to America as immigrants with the same aspirations that all great immigrant communities have had," Mengestu commented. "But some people take a drastic step down when they come, in status and income. I can't tell you how many times I've been in a cab with an African-born taxi driver who was a lawyer or a professor of economics in his homeland. Now he's perceived as someone uneducated, and unskilled."

Stephanos is named for Mengestu's grandfather, and two other characters for his uncles. But he stresses, "This is not my own immediate family's particular story, but a composite story about how it feels to be forced out of your own country, to come here by necessity rather than choice, and to be separated from the life you had made. That can create a deep and pervasive sense of loss."

He wanted to make Stephanos a multilayered individual, "as complicated and fully realized as possible. Reading a lot of literature and nonfiction, I'd felt frustration when African characters didn't have the complexity and depth of humanity they should have. Most Africans aren't salt-of-the-earth people who speak in platitudes, any more than they're gun-toting pirates."

The Columbia University-educated Mengestu gave Book-It's adaptation his approval when he saw the troupe perform some scenes from it last year, as part of the Seattle Reads program.

"I was very, very happy with what they did," stated the author, who has written a new novel he won't discuss yet, except to say it should come out in 2010.

"I hope I can get to Seattle to see the play. But that may not happen. My fiancee and I are very busy right now, trying to find a new apartment in Paris."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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