Charles Smith has given us many fascinating, historically rooted plays about relatively unexplored aspects of black life — from “Black Star Line” (about the rise of Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey and his Back to Africa movement of the 1920s), to “Knock Me a Kiss” (about the complex marriage between W.E.B. Du Bois’ daughter and one of Harlem’s great poets, Countee Cullen), to “Free Man of Color” (about the ex-slave who attended Ohio University and graduated 35 years before the end of slavery).
‘OBJECTS IN THE MIRROR’ Highly recommended When: Through June 4 Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Tickets: $20 – $75 Info: www.goodmantheatre.org Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
But “Objects in the Mirror,” now receiving a heart-wrenching, fiercely acted world premiere at the Goodman Theatre, might just be Smith’s finest work. Spinning an immensely complicated story with great economy, he has given us a drama that captures the essence of the almost unimaginably vicious civil wars that raged in the West African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea between 1989 and 2003; the horrific plights of those who tried to flee from them and often had to spend years in putrid refugee camps or on desperate walks through the bush; the tragic psychological scars left on those who survived the ordeal; the wrenching destruction and powerful endurance of family ties; the complex nature of racial, sexual and national identity; the tension between lies and storytelling, and above all, the stunning human drive for survival. And under the superbly lean direction of Chuck Smith (no relation to the playwright), a small but sterling cast leaves you feeling every bit as exhausted, emotionally un-moored and conscience-stricken as the characters. This is a masterful drama on every level.
The play takes it title from the phrase “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear” — the safety warning engraved on the passenger side mirrors of motor vehicles. Here it is a metaphor for the fact that things are not always what they seem to be either in times of crisis or relative stability. And the sense of lurking danger, misconstrued signals and incorrect human perceptions is the subtext for everything in Smith’s play.
The story (inspired by the plight of a young Liberian-born actor Smith met, who had endured a 10-year journey before finding refuge in Australia), begins when war comes to the rural town where the young teenager, Shedrick Kennedy Yarkpai (Daniel Kyri), lives with his mother, Luopu Workolo (Lily Mojekwu) and other relatives. Aware that her son will either be killed, or captured by roving militias who will turn him into a child soldier, Luopu entrusts Shedrick to his sly, street-smart uncle, John Workolo (Allen Gilmore), whose son, Zaza Workolo (Breon Arzell) is something of an older brother to Shedrick. Her hope is that John will shepherd the boys to relative safety in a neighboring country. The dual promise she exacts from her reticent son is that he survives and does not forget her.
John, who in many ways resembles the Engineer in “Miss Saigon” in his absolute brilliance as a fixer, refers to their flight from Liberia as “an adventure,” when in fact it is as hellish a journey as Dante could ever have imagined. Along the way John loses his own son, and then, quite stoically, shifts visas and passports and gives Shedrick the name of Zaza. That renaming will be the cause of almost catastrophic grief and psychic confusion in Shedrick after he survives the hunger, filth, disease and hopelessness of life on the run and finally settles in Australia, where he begins to thrive and comes under the “tutelage” of Rob Moser (Ryan Kitley), a successful white attorney. And John’s rant against Moser over who is Shedrick’s true “father figure” is one of the great scenes in any recent play, with Gilmore in thunderous form.
Kyri (whose poetic bearing and delivery left an indelible mark in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “Tug of War” epic last season) is an actor of beautifully restrained yet palpable emotion who makes you feel Shedrick’s growing pains all along the way, particularly when he tries to figure out the true meaning of justice. Gilmore is a genius of an actor and gives us a brilliant evocation of a man who can be alternately wily, comic, deceitful, grateful, ferocious and indomitable. If ever there were a portrait of the survivor, John is it. He also is a great rescuer.
And then there is Mojekwu, whose maternal fire sets the theater ablaze in a scene in which she talks on her mobile phone to the son she has not seen for years. She, too, is a survivor. And the actress (who also appeared in Goodman’s 2015 New Stages developmental production of this play) brings the house down.
Riccardo Hernandez’s set (massive corrugated tin walls for various African sites, a handsomely carved roof for Moser’s posh home, and a vast, sun-kissed beach in Adelaide, Australia) is beautifully lit by John Culbert, with Birgit Rattenborg Wise’s costumes suggesting the interplay of Africa and the West. Initially I thought the Goodman mainstage was too large for such an essentially intimate story, but “Objects in the Mirror” is an epic historical tale — one bound to reverberate for as long as war drives mass migrations of those hellbent on survival.