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Sunday, 02 March 2014 16:32

Off-Broadway Review: SINCE AFRICA a Polemic on African and American Culture

Written by
Matthew Murumba and Jenny Vallancourt Matthew Murumba and Jenny Vallancourt Photo: Jenny Anderson

Mia McCullough’s Since Africa , performed by The Red Fern Theatre Company, utilizes a foreign perspective to offer new light on the nature of disconnecting and resolution in 21st century America. The plot centers on Ater Dhal (Matthew Murumba) , a “lost boy” of the Sudan, as he assimilates into American culture with the aid of pastor Reggie Hudson (Elton Beckett) and a wealthy volunteer Diane MacIntyre (Jennifer Dorr White) whose husband died recently on a trip to Africa.

Diane, following her husband’s passing, moved from her large estate to a smaller space within the city, has obsessively taken to therapy and has avoided making a decision regarding the treatment of her husband’s ashes. These decisions and indecisions perturb her daughter Eve ( Jenny Vallancourt) an activist college student, who implores her mother to face the passing of her father by burying him. There is also an African dancer, performed by Kristin D. Carpenter, dressed all in white who works as a metaphor for Ater’s culture and history. She is the foreign and the new strain of humanity, which is imbued in the characters who come into contact with the character of Ater.

The American characters are all fast to judge one another based off of their preconceived notions, and the audience does as well, withholding empathy from characters they might deem unworthy of it, especially Diane. Diane’s problems seem slight and self-indulgent in comparison to the struggles which Ater is facing. While she postulates on how unexotic her death will be to her therapist, Ater is facing issues of unemployment, abysmal living space and seemingly impenetrable cultural walls during his forced transition into Chicago life. Yet, by both Diane’s speech having the self-reflecting eloquence and accuracy only capable of a therapy addict and by Jennifer Dorr White’s empathetic and nonjudgmental personification, we connect to her issues and have a catharsis for her recovery similar to what we automatically gave to the traumatized Ater.

Diane’s goodness comes from her sincere care for Ater and the peace she finds in solving his problems. Pastor Hudson sees in Ater something similarly refreshing, a world where his relevance is established. Yet, despite both of their best intentions for him, the pastor and Diane are very suspicious of one another. The pastor views Diane’s finances as a fickle charity and Diane sees Pastor Hudson as an advantageous man hoping to make converts of people in their time of suffering rather than giving them more practical aid. The two often dispute when left alone.

The play confronts such an all-encompassing perspective on modern society that at times the sheer ambition of the piece is too large for its utility as social drama to be delivered. Many of the dialogues between the American characters and Ater are essentially polemics regarding African and American cultures. While the information gained on African culture from Ater in these discussions is admirable, it’s with his return question “...and you? ... what do you do?” that Since Africa finds its light and where director Nancy Robillard was able to exhume its humanity. Much like its characters Since Africa burdens itself with its struggle to find a cause to the point that it often loses touch with the organic drama sparked by its deep characterization. In these points of unburdened human interaction the most poignant moments of the play were found thanks to incredible photorealistic performances by a uniformly brilliant cast.

The theatre space at the 14th St Y is wide and shallow and equally split between performance space and audience seating. The set, designed by Robert Monaco, is nicely mirrored by Ian Wehrle’s sound design where abstract theatricality is punctured by moments of absolute realism. Lighting designer Sam Gordon was able to exploit the multiplicity of Monaco’s setting thanks to his clean lighting decisions and costume designer Sarah J Holden spoke eloquently on the character development through her own perspective.

Through subtle metaphor each designer had their chance to discuss the play’s social conflict- the canvas which is draped throughout the realistic space, the gentrification and then urbanization of Ater’s costuming, the mix of abstract percussion, performed live by Evan Goldhahn, and photorealistic sound - each design choice was made to tell the story of a transition into America and to bolster the drama onstage of Ater’s struggle.

Since Africa
February 20 – March 9, 2014
The Theater at the 14th Street Y
344 E. 14 St. (between 1st and 2nd Ave)
New York, NY

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Last modified on Thursday, 09 July 2015 05:02