By Eric J. Grimm
Mia McCullough’s Since Africa challenges the quality of philanthropy and the incompatibility of certain morals and traditions. It is tricky territory but the play is alternately cautious and determined where it must be. It leaves you with a sense of uncertainty, as works that address complex issues should. McCullough’s expertly crafted characters require a nuanced approach and the leads of The Red Fern Theatre Company’s new production of the play consistently show a commitment to the smooth and rough qualities of their roles.
Diane (Jennifer Dorr White), a well-meaning upper middle class white woman looking to occupy her time after husband unexpectedly dies of a heart attack, is the picture of high-minded liberal guilt. She is a patron of Africa, adorning her walls with instruments of war that she finds beautiful. Perhaps because she is completely disconnected from her college-aged daughter, Eve (Jenny Vallancourt), she decides to volunteer by assisting a Sudanese “lost boy” as he adjusts to American life in a low-income neighborhood of Chicago. McCullough succeeds in not shaming Diane and making her the buffoon of the piece. Diane goes toe to toe with Deacon Hudson (Elton Beckett), a black man with little understanding of African culture. Diane, an atheist, objects to western Christians wiping out African culture, casting her as both admirable and ignorant. White, with a crisp voice that is maternal and condescending, treats Diane with utmost respect in her carefully constructed portrayal. While Diane’s actions may make us wince, we can appreciate her for her good intentions. White is fully immersed in Diane, making us want to get to know her. She glides through McCullough’s well-constructed speeches naturally.
As Ater, the displaced Sudanese refugee, Matthew Murumba conveys a curiosity that makes it a privilege to follow along with his story. While all four principals struggle with identity, Ater’s narrative is jarring and never falls into fish-out-of-water stereotypes. Murumba is genuine in his excitement and frustration and his inevitable breakdown made me feel the pain of Ater’s infantilization at the hands of philanthropic Americans. His conflicts are not easily resolved, leaving us to wonder how much harm we do in the name of charity to those we do not understand.
McCullough’s dialogue is straightforward but often contains vivid depictions of tenderness and terror that occur offstage to great effect. The strength of the writing makes it all the more puzzling that among the small ensemble there is a nameless dancer who mimics some of the action and acts as a connector thread between the characters or possibly the settings. Kristin D. Carpenter dances beautifully but her role as the spirit of Africa is better served for the percussionist (Evan Goldhahn) who drums during scene transitions and represents an off-stage therapist who three of the characters consult. The monologues in which the characters try to make sense of their pasts and struggle to form their own identities are so skillfully written that it is not difficult to imagine violent encounters in Sudan and suburban Illinois. The visual aid is overkill.
My own storytelling preferences aside, this is a successful piece of theater. Diane and Ater’s uneasy adjustments to life after loss make for compelling drama. The whole affair is remarkably well-paced thanks to confident direction from Nancy Robillard. The seasoned director understands varied nature of the piece, highlighting its musicality and tragedy without a heavy hand. It is a fine production of an important modern work.
Cast: Elton Beckett, Kristin D. Carpenter, Matthew Murumba, Jenny Vallancourt, Jennifer Dorr White, Evan Goldhahn.
*Photos: Jenny Anderson
Since Africa runs February 20- March 9, 2014 at The Theater at the 14th St. Y, located at 344 E. 14th St. Tickets are available at http://www.redferntheatre.org.