Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods Deliberately Fails to Illuminate Genocidal Civil War in the Sudan
The long-running murderous and brutally inhumane ethnic, tribal, religious and racial conflict that has brought so much suffering to the Sudan provides the background and raison d'être for Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods. The local, regional and international complexities impacting on the conflict make it clear that there can be no quick or easy solution to the ongoing tragedy. Therefore, how admirable must it be for Lost Boy author Tammy Ryan to attempt to dramatize issues relating to the on-going misery and engage its audience into taking action to help resolve it. However, except for one reference to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, which holds this reprehensible racist ruler responsible for two million deaths (according to the United Nations, a sufficiently horrendous 300,000 people have perished in this conflict), Ms. Ryan seems to reserve her anger for America and Catholic Charities. Even if Ms. Ryan is not inclined to give credit to each for its good deeds, each would be very far down on any rational person's list of villains in this situation. However, Ms. Ryan does give us a strong insight into why that no matter what the United States does in any situation, we will always be seen by our detractors as the bad guys.
The setting is 2003 suburban Pittsburgh where the financially secure, divorced, middle-aged Christine is living at crossed swords with her difficult, petulant 15-year-old daughter, Alex. While shopping at Whole Foods, Christine is served by Gabriel, an exceptionally friendly and personable young man. When he was about six years old, Gabriel was one of thousands of African boys (few of whom survived) who had been torn from the bosom of their families and trekked 800 miles to African refugee camps in order to save them from being slaughtered by Muslim Arab Sudanese. The latter had destroyed the villages of African tribes in (largely Muslim with Christian remnants) Darfur. Militias from these African tribes have revolted seeking their independence. Having been brought to the United States under the auspices of our government and Catholic Charities three years earlier, the ambitious, level-headed Gabriel is working to support himself while attending school to study business management.
The unfulfilled Christine invites Gabriel to her home for help from Alex in writing an essay as well as for dinner. Becoming more involved with him, Christine invites Gabriel to live with them in order to enable him to study full time, and she seeks to find his mother in Africa so that Gabriel can re-unite with her if she has survived. Christine's well-meaning, but seemingly ill-considered efforts throw Gabriel off track. Still, the ultimate tragedy is random rather than a result of her presumptuous interference.
There are three other characters here. Panther, also a former "lost boy" of Darfur, is now lost in criminality and drugs. Gabriel cannot shake him off as Panther was instrumental in Gabriel's survival during their African trek. Then there are two social workers: Michael, a now former Catholic Charities employee who seems to represent inadequate commitment, and Segel, a dedicated Muslim woman, who is the conscience of the play.
The first act of Lost Boy plays like a family-oriented cable channel's light drama or what used to be known in an earlier era of television as an "after school special." The dialogue is sometimes poetically stilted and artificial. The second act adds agitprop to the mixture and is more interesting. However, it is marred by the inconsistency of its characters and a bizarre political agenda. As a result, despite John Pietrowski's well paced direction, there is little emotional punch in its resolution. This may partially account for the ineffectiveness of a dull poetically intended epilogue that adds nothing to the proceedings.
Kim Zimmer is solid as Christine. After the first two scenes set up the play's premise, Zimmer adroitly and unselfishly becomes the straight woman for the others as Christine largely becomes a malleable punching bag for the other characters. Warner Miller brings a quiet dignity to Gabriel. Jamil Mangan is appropriately scary as the menacing Panther. Author Ryan has a tragic back story in waiting for Panther in order to remind us that some of the worst actors in society were once victims themselves. Yet there is nothing in the script to give credence to the sudden and arbitrary shifts in Panther's character and behavior. Neither is the acceptance of his behavior by Christine and her household convincing.
Alexandra Rivera fails to converge the various contradictory, arbitrary aspects of Alex into a believable entity. Although her program biography indicates that she is relatively young, Rivera appears far too mature to portray a fifteen year old. Trish McCall is dynamic and fully alive as Segel. While the character has no life beyond being an impassioned social worker, McCall finds believable, fiery life within this frame.
While the tragic situation in the Sudan is monumentally complex and continually in flux, Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods includes precious little information about its background or the local, regional and international players deeply involved here. The play seems to be designed to shield some bad actors and deny due credit to the United States which has played a more admirable role there than any other nation.
Despite this, the American Muslim social worker Segel flies into a rage, verbally attacking Christine for only helping Gabriel and not doing more. In a racist tirade, Segel tells us why. "... because of the privilege of your white skin ... What you do with your upper class American privilege, that is your responsibility; you must work to divest ...".
I guess that racist points of view are still regarded as acceptable in our theatre, if their targets are white and American.
I must relate a modicum of the information conveniently omitted from this play in order to establish the perniciousness of the enterprise. The United Nations says that, since 2003, 2.7 million people have fled their homes and 300,000 people have died in Darfur. When U.S. President, George W. Bush was a world leader in seeking to end the genocide in the Sudan. The United States appears to have donated more than all the other countries in the world combined for humanitarian aid and peace keeping in Darfur. In 2005 (the year for which I was able to obtain figures), we provided 53% of all world aida proportion about twice the size of our nation's share of the world economy. (It is true that in 2010, our Administration has sharply reduced the approximately $1.5 billion dollars that the United States donated in each of the years 2008 and 2009.) In 2005, China gave 0%, France 2%, Japan 2%, Saudi Arabia only $3 million, United Arab Emirates and Qatar under $1 million combined; no other Arab country made the list. Since 2003, the United States has provided more than $8 billion in humanitarian aid. China is Sudan's largest trading partner. PetroChina, a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Company provides so much revenue to Sudan in royalty payments that the government can afford to maintain armies and militia to attack black Africans in Darfur (this fact comes from Eric Cohen, Chairman of the committee for U.S. divestiture). The wisdom and effectiveness of U.S. divestiture are far from clear.
Russia is its primary supplier of aircraft. One Saudi real estate investor invested $10 billion in the Sudan (2005). Sudan has 563 million barrels of oil and total oil reserves of five billion barrels. The Arab governments want the problem solved among themselves (after there is a peace agreement). The latest cease fire was agreed upon early this year, but it is now being routinely violated. While the ICC has brought charges against al-Bashir, it has thus far refused to charge him with genocide. The African Union opposes this, and will not surrender him in any event. The United States Congress has passed legislation charging al-Bashir with genocide.
It is clear that author Tammy Ryan thinks herself above those whom she is attacking. For anyone who shares her hostility toward white America, viewing Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods will be satisfying.
Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods continues performances (Thursday 5pm/Friday and Saturday 8pm/ Saturday and Sunday 3pm) through September 19, 2010 at the Zelda Fry Theatre in the Vaughn Eames Building on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, New Jersey. Box Office:908-737-4092; online: www.kean.edu/premierestages.
Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods by Tammy Ryan; directed by John Pietrowski