Theatre in Review

Objects in the Mirror, an outstanding play having its premier at Goodman Theatre, will soon have you wanting to know more about its author, Charles Smith, a Chicago playwright.  

Starring Daniel Kyri as Shedrick Yarkpai, this play springs from the true story of the real life Yarkpai, a refugee who fled Liberia in the aftermath of its first Civil War, struggling for 12 years across hostile terrain and through refugee camps in Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire.

Excellent performances and a creative set and lighting make this a show not to miss, especially for the wonderful writing of Charles Smith. Breon Arzell plays cousin Zaza Workolo; Ryan Kitley is Rob Mosher; and Lily Mojekwu as Shedrick’s mother Luopu Workolo is just spectacular – she steals all her scenes.

The real life Shedrick Yarkpai eventually made his way to Adelaide, Australia, and as fate would have it became an actor. And so, playwright Smith met him and heard his tale while staging another of his plays there - Free Man of Color (it won a 2004 Jeff Award and has been staged widely, including the Goodman).

Shedrick Yarkpai’s passage through the wilderness alone would be a worthy story, bringing our attention to the privation in Liberia wrought by years of civil chaos. But this play would not succeed as it does, unless it can hold our attention and keep us in our seats. 

And here Smith’s skillful craft shines through, along with director Chuck Smith and the creative team, who have turned the years-long odyssey of the protagonists, Shedrick and his uncle John Workolo (Allen Gilmore is terrific) – they ate grass, lived in the bush, both life and limbs, literally, endangered by violent, machete wielding warriors – and condensed it into an engaging trek, showing geography, educating us on the history, but all in an entertaining way, unlikely as this may seem.

Objects in the Mirror is so much more than a topical recount of Liberian suffering and struggle. Smith also puts before us the psychological and emotional toll on all refugees who must give up so much of their culture, and themselves, in resettling. Among the things so striking about Smith’s play is how he holds our interest in Shedrick’s odyssey. But he subordinates it to a more charged dramatic concern: the personal compromises refugees must make in escaping, and losses that can never be reclaimed.

In a way that only theater can, we engage and experience the personal emotional stress. And while we know of the trauma, what Smith conveys is the suffering from loss of identity, and of dreams. Shedrick has adopted a false identity to make it through border crossings – but he regrets the loss of his name.

Shedrick is a dreamer. He is also a storyteller, as is Smith, and the characters he has created. "Through storytelling, the play ascends to a powerful examination of truth and falsity, and the powers of persuasion. All good stories tell a strand of the truth," says Uncle John.

Once in Adelaide, Yarkpai finds work with a supportive Australian government agent – but Shedrick’s uncle John is fearful it will blow their cover. The debate through several scenes in which different characters tell their version of the parts of Shedrick's story is the stuff of great theater. 

The creative team includes Riccardo Hernandez (set design), Mike Tutaj (projection design), John Culbert (lighting design), Birgit Rattenborg Wise (costume design), Ray Nardelli (sound design). Briana J. Fahey is the production stage manager.

Objects in the Mirror runs through June 4 at the Goodman Theatre. It is highly recommended.

Published in Theatre in Review
Monday, 20 February 2017 11:46

Review: Steppenwolf Theatre's "Monster"

“What do you see when you look at me?”

 

That was the final line of Steve Harmon (Daniel Kyri) from the stage adaptation of the best-selling book Monster

 

Monster is an award-winning novel by Walter Dean Myers and has been adapted by Aaron Carter. The show tells the story of African American teenager Steve Harmon, an aspiring filmmaker, who is on trial for felony murder. 

 

The show takes the inner monologue of Steve as he deals with being on trial for a murder that he says he was not part of. Since Steve is an aspiring filmmaker he tells the story as if it were lifted from a script that he is writing, using terms like “Close on”, “Cut To”, and “Fade In.” The show itself tries to tackle the issues of race, the public perception of race, masculinity, as well as the justice system itself. 

 

“While the play does deal with the criminal justice system and notions of guilt and innocence, to me, the most active thing about the book is examining how people perceive young black men,” says adapter Aaron Carter. 

 

The idea might be there, but the execution of the idea seems to fall short. Yes, African American men are incarcerated at a much higher rate than any other race. Currently, according to the NAACP, African Americans constitute nearly 1 million of the 2.3 million incarcerated population. However, this play does not represent those kind of staggering statistics. The major scenes in the show take place in court, in jail, and in Steve’s home. The show focuses more on the idea of masculinity and what it is like to be a “man” in today’s society.

 

Steve tries to act tough in front of other gang members from the neighborhood, but behind closed doors Steve speaks about how he wants no part of that life. The only part I took away from the show, in terms of race relations, was that if you hire a white lawyer to be your attorney, it looks better for your character. 

 

Aside from the adaptation issues this is still an important show to see. The reason being is that this show demonstrates how one decision can alter your path for the rest of your life. Steve is sixteen-years-old and if he is convicted he faces a prison sentence of twenty-five-years to life. This play can serve as important message for today’s youth. There will be connections made simply because the performances by the cast are what bring it all together. 

 

Mr. Kyri brings Steve to life as he battles with what he wants and what he needs, creating for the audience a legitimate hope and fear. The rest of the cast take on various roles throughout the show proving their range as actors. Kenn E. Head is able to go from worried father in one scene and instantly transform into hardened criminal in the very next scene. Alana Arenas shines as a hardened assistant district attorney and also as Steve’s well-to-do mother. 

 

Overall, this play speaks to many themes, but just not the one we thought it might choose. With excellent performances from a dynamic cast, Monster is worth seeing. The overall message may be muddled, and that is the hard part about this adaptation. There is a fine line to walk and only so much can be said in such a short amount of time. There are great pieces out there that continue the discussion of race, but this is not one of them unfortunately. 

 

Monster is being performed at Steppenwolf Theatre through March 9th as its latest presentation for Young Adult. For tickets and/or more information, click here

 

Published in Theatre in Review

 

 

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