REVIEW: In Darfur (Timeline Theatre)

     
     

Timeline illuminates compassion, courage amidst human atrocities

     
     

Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) is reluctant to share the story of what has happened to her with New York Times reporter Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling.

  
Timeline Theatre presents
   
In Darfur
  
Written by Winter Miller
Directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $28-$38  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

The peril of collecting firewood in Darfur – an everyday necessity almost as basic as food and water – sums up the horror of a blood-soaked country. Mothers have to choose which of her children to send to collect kindling, notes the humanitarian aid worker in Winter Miller’s drama In Darfur. That choice is one no parent should ever be forced to make.

“If they send their son, he gets killed,” the aid worker explains, “f they send their daughter, she gets raped. So they send their daughters.”

Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) tries to persuade Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) to share the story of what has happened to her in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch.Such heartbreaking decisions are tragically common within the borders of Sudan’s Darfur region, a swath of land about the size of France in northeastern Africa. Statistics are fuzzy, but it’s generally recognized that since 2003, at least 400,000 Darfuris have been killed and over 2 million displaced at the hands of the government-sponsored Janjaweed militia. The number of rapes resulting from the crisis are essentially impossible to count, in part because rape is used as a systemic tool of war and because the shame of the crime is so great (survivors can be later charged with adultery and flogged) that it is likely grossly underreported.

With Timeline Theatre‘s production of In Darfur, director Nick Bowling succeeds in putting human faces to the staggering atrocities. His cast is strong, almost strong enough to overcome the considerable limitations to Mille’s script. Leading the small, tightly woven ensemble: Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa, an English teacher who survives both the murder of her entire family and multiple gang rapes. A deceptively soft-spoken powerhouse, Langford gets a well-deserved showcase with In Darfur. She manages a bravura turn.

The piece is also a near-perfectly realized merger of video footage and traditionally performed drama. Mike Tutaj’s projections succeed in virtually putting the audience smack in the center of the action. The opening scene – a harrowing ride over a rough and roadless terrain amid a hailstorm of bullets – is perhaps the most effective use of video we’ve seen on a stage. Tutaj’s work makes the heat, the dust, the danger and the casualties of war (in one scene, Hawa buries her husband and child in shallow, sandy graves) palpable.

In all, the artistry of both the cast and Tutaj’s projections go a long way toward minimizing the shortcomings inherent to Miller’s drama.

Miller wrote the play after working as a researcher for the New York Times in Darfur. There’s no question but what she saw the atrocities of war first hand while in the region. On her website, Miller recalls walking through villages burned to the ground and turned into ghost towns, speaking with child rape victims less than 48 hours after their assaults, and watching a 20-year-old die after being gunned down over a matter of $200.

     
Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa - In Darfur at Timeline Kelli Simpkins as Maryka - In Darfur, Timeline Theatre

In Darfur centers on three lives that become intertwined during the violence – Maryka, a New York Times reporter (Kelli Simpkins), Carlos, a doctor (Gregory Isaac) and Hawa, a Sudanese English teacher (Langford). The script falters in that Maryka and Carlos are only character types as opposed to fully-formed characters. They seem to exist to present a point of view more than an authentic segment of the narrative. Moreover, some of the dialogue between the reporter and her editor (Tyla Abercrumbie) has the ring of a spoof of The Front Page. And although the dialogue implies conflicts between Maryka and her editor that go beyond whether Darfur is a front page story, they are never even partially delved.

Also problematic: Miller’s structure of having the actors speak in the language of the region, simultaneously translated into English – a kind of living form of subtitles – by other actors standing just off stage. It’s fascinating to hear the words as they would be uttered in Darfur, but the ongoing interpretations add a layer of distance to a narrative that demands intimacy.

Yet for all its drawbacks, In Darfur is compelling. Simpkins brings dark humor, an aggressive edge and a reservoir of compassion to the reporter’s role. As Carlos, Gregory Isaac captures the mix of burned out fatalism and stubborn idealism that come of doing good under hellish circumstances. And Langford brings both a gentleness and a steely, survivor’s resolve to a role that is both physically and emotionally demanding.

A final note: It’s always worth arriving at a TimeLine production early; the company invariably elevates dramaturgy to a level of storytelling on par with the production itself. Dramaturg Maren Robinson’s work for In Darfur is no exception. The lobby is also hosting “Darfur, Darfur,” an astonishing collection of photos from the region. The images are indelibly vivid, provide a rich context for the story on stage and should not be missed.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

Carlos (Gregory Isaac, left) is a doctor with an aid organization in Darfur who tries to help Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch

     
     

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REVIEW: Tad in the 5th City (MPAACT)

A burning reminder of days past

 

  
MPAACT presents
 
Tad in the 5th City
 
Directed and adapted by Carla Stillwell
Based on poetry by
Orron Kenyatta
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 13th  tickets: $23  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I was eight years old when the West Side of Chicago went up in flames. My grandparents lived there and I visited them often. After the death of Dr. King and the riots, life changed for Black America and every pundit was asking why. Why would they burn their own neighborhoods? Why are they so angry? MPAACT Theatre presents life from the ashes of the riots with Tad in 5th City. It is a raw and painful look at how poverty, drugs, and the accompanying violence became systemic in Black families.

Tad in 5th City is adapted from the poetry of Orron Kenyatta by Carla Stillwell. Ms. Stillwell also directed this world premiere. The play takes us to ten years after the riots in the roach-infested apartment of the Brown family. Mama drinks from a liquor bottle like it’s water. Pappa Daddy is strung out on heroin. Older son James is feeling the pull of burgeoning thug life. Young Tad is an innocent born after the apocalypse on 29 blocks of Chicago. Life is happening to the Browns and they are struggling against an impossible tide of de facto segregation and new families formed by gangs.

Ms. Stillwell’s adaptation of Kenyatta’s poetry is fluid, retaining the angst of poet forebears such as Gil Scott Heron and The Last Poets. Life in the ghetto was not necessarily an episode of “Good Times” with stereotypically ‘strong Black women’ and errant Black men. The characters are represented realistically and with respect for the lives they chose no matter the path.

The griot of 5th City is the newspaper stand owner-Uncle Brotha. The magnificent Andre Teamer plays Uncle Brotha with the desperation and hope of a man watching his neighborhood swirl down the sewer. He knows that some people will be lost and he gives mentoring encouragement to those who can be saved. The entire neighborhood passes by his newsstand and he is the one positive constant in Tad’s life. Teamer’s body language seems weighted down and, indeed, his character carries a generation of burden. The anguish and tears that flow in the final scenes feel authentic in expressing loss, anger, and of having to speak the truth.

Sidney Miller plays the role of Mama. I have to say that it was a relief to see a Black female character as vulnerable instead of stoic and trembling in dignity all of the time. Ms. Miller’s Mama is a profane and wounded character. She sips from the liquor bottle as an anesthetic. Her person is pulled together one moment and disheveled the next. Yes, Mama is going it alone but there is scant pride or reward for her efforts.

Eddie Jordan III plays the role of Pappa Daddy, taking the difficult task of making an absentee addict father sympathetic. Pappa steals to hock items for the rent and to fill his veins with relief. He gets no respect at home and what love there was has long since left their marriage. Jordan powerfully projects the shame and self- loathing of addiction. This character is the proverbial invisible man until the police choose to see him. Drugs have obscured his pride and muted his drive to make any efforts at being the man of the house.

David Goodloe is new to America and the Chicago stage. His portrayal of James is like an exposed nerve. The usual portrayal is that young men want the easy life and money of drug dealing but the truth is often anything but easy. James’ family provides no role models. There is no dignity or power in the substandard education he is forced to endure. He chooses the most accessible route and gets a convoluted ‘brotherhood’ and status in peddling drugs.

Destin L. Teamer plays the central role of Tad. Young Destin Teamer is the son of Andre Teamer (Uncle Brotha), and this is his theatrical debut. What a debut it is! Destin is an adorable and handsome young man in the 5th grade and yet he turns in a performance of a seasoned veteran. His Tad is no adorable moppet watching the world in innocent wonder – his portrayal is savvy and heart breaking. Tad is a boy who likes to read the newspaper and draw comics, a huge deal in a neighborhood scarred by riots and decay. The character of Mama is profane in her version of love, telling him to ‘get his ass home by four’ and ‘get your ass to school’. Destin Teamer’s portrayal is unflinching and letter perfect. I give kudos on the possible beginnings of an acting dynasty.

Rounding out the cast are Sati Word and Shayla A. Jarvis. Mr. Word does triple duty as a drug dealer, a vicious pimp, and a hilarious preacher. My grandmother would refer to this Reverend as a ‘jacklegged’ preacher. Mr. Word spouts Biblical passages and platitudes at Uncle Brotha trying to bring him to his church. It is spot on how he pronounces God with three syllables. Mr. Word’s Reverend and Mr. Teamer’s Uncle Brotha have a magnificent sparring on the interpretation of the Bible, in particularly the Gospel of Matthew and Hebrews. They verbally circle each other in front of Tad in a climatic confrontation that sizzles with vitriol and anger. Mr. Word’s pimp starts out with the comic undertones of a 70’s television character. The tone darkens considerably when he calls the prostitute Miss Lady “bitch”.

Miss Lady is played by Shayla A. Jarvis. It is a searing performance and highlights the vulnerability in what has been perceived as a tough woman’s game. Ms. Jarvis tempers the comic possibilities of Miss Lady with her tenderness toward Tad and her respect for Uncle Brotha. Her character becomes the most sympathetic because she is not written as a drug addict. She works for the Pimp out of a need for love, protection, and approval. Hers is a story that has been analyzed for sociology studies and mined for fraternity pimps-and-ho’s parties, but Ms. Jarvis beautifully humanizes a woman on the lowest rung of a lower society.

Tad in 5th City tells a story that is unique to Chicago. Playwright Stillwell has lifted the cover off of a forgotten story. The city can tear down and gentrify the edifices in an attempt to obscure history but the wounds and vestiges are systemic. This story is a step toward confronting the past and healing it. Indeed the revolution will not be televised – the revolution will be live (with respect to G.S. Heron). MPAACT has produced yet another honest and powerhouse addition to the Chicago theatre scene. Tad In 5th City is not to be missed for those who love theatre and who love Chicago.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
 

tadarticle

This is not a play for young children as there is incendiary language, violence, drug use, and frank sexuality.

The play runs Thursdays through Sundays from May 13th till June 13th at The Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Box Office 773-404-7336 or www.mpaact.org