By Jane Recker
We live in a world so saturated with evil that at times we don’t see atrocities for what they are.
We choose not to look at the homeless riddling the streets; we’ve become numb to the expected nightly news report of a shooting; and, while we’re aware that there are entire countries sieged by violence and bloodshed, we are unable to comprehend the sheer magnitude of the brutality.
Genesis Theatrical Production’s Sister Africa aims to combat this apathy by sharing the individual stories of those affected by the unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While there are some problematic choices and technical issues along the way, the show ultimately succeeds in its mission, making for an incredibly moving piece of theater, living up to Genesis Theatrical Production’s and director Elayne LeTraunik’s commitment to spark conversation about global issues.
Based on the personal experiences of writer Stephanie Liss during her time with Jewish World Watch, the show draws its material from hundreds of hours of interviews with victims of rape and torture, child soldiers and the staff of Jewish World Watch.
Inspired by the moving words from her rabbi (a strong, Tevye-like performance from Jimmy Binns), Miriam (Melissa Nelson), travels to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in an effort to aid the women and children affected by the war. Along the way she meets Cesar (Chris McClellan), a child soldier; Amani (Ahmed Brooks), a man attempting to free the child soldiers; and Mama Jette (Takesha Kizart), a woman who lost her family and was brutally raped.
McClellan gives a strong performance as Cesar, showing that people are not inherently evil, but, rather, are broken down and made evil by the circumstances. A child soldier abandoned by his mother to the militia in an effort to save his sister, McClellan deftly navigates a complicated swathe of emotions, ranging from tenderness when recalling his family, to rage about his current fate as a child soldier, to cold, inhuman apathy when confronted about his raping of Jette.
The true star of the show is Kizart as Mama Jette. She has the audience wrapped around her finger from her first monologue, and leads them along the heartbreaking journey through the atrocities she has experienced. There aren’t many actresses that can reach the emotional depths of a woman who watched her husband be murdered and her baby thrown into a fire, who was then brutally raped to the point where her womb had to be removed, but Kizart can and does. There isn’t a dry eye in the audience when she confronts her child soldier rapist: her nuanced expression of a complicated grief is powerful and gripping, and clearly explains how she has received such credits as performing with Deutsche Oper Berlin and Metropolitan Opera of NY. It is a gift to have her grace the Chicago theater scene.
Aiding the expression of these profound scenes is a terrific original score from composer RebbeSoul. His gentle accompaniment to the actions onstage does exactly what background music should do: stay in the background. Beautiful and thoughtfully composed, it never overshadows the drama playing out onstage, but rather serves to subtly enhance the atmosphere created by the script and acting.
Unfortunately, not all of the technical elements are as strong. With a basic “lights on, lights off” lighting design, it feels too simple to support the intensity of the rest of the production and oftentimes takes away from the action onstage. There is more than one instance where a character delivers a monologue in near darkness while a spotlight is shown on another actor doing insignificant background movement.
There is also the issue of the character Miriam, the physical incarnation of the white savior complex. Her attempts to connect with Jette by comparing her own experiences with her frigid, Holocaust survivor father to Jette’s brutalities is a big stretch and, quite frankly, insulting. Her naïve belief that a friendly smile and a blessing is all it takes to help heal someone who has watched their entire family be slaughtered in front of them is grossly laughable. Why Liss would create this character to be the face of Jewish World Watch – an organization that has done an incredible amount of good for the Congo by building schools, providing solar cookers, and stopping child labor – is a mystery.
Problems aside, this show is still incredibly powerful and is unafraid to tackle sensitive issues and dark topics with thoughtful, poetic writing and intelligent acting. This thought-provoking work of art leaves the audience with a new perspective, and, hopefully, will inspire change.
Genesis Theatrical Productions presents “Sister Africa” through Sept. 10 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.