Since Africa is based on the compelling true story of a refugee from Sudan, one of thousands of children who trekked hundreds of miles to escape a brutal civil war. Known as the Lost Boys, as it was assumed their parents were dead, over 3,000 were resettled in the United States. Mia McCullough’s thought-provoking and compassionate interpretation of adjusting to life in a very foreign land, where even the stars are unfamiliar, suggests that there are profound lessons to be learnt not only for the refugees but also for those who try to help them.
We first meet the lost boy in Since Africa making a dash from the bathroom to answer the door of a dingy apartment in Chicago. Ater, in a gangly, wide-eyed and near perfect performance by Matthew Murumba, is finding that American food doesn’t agree with him. So he doesn’t in fact open the door to a feisty, middle-aged socialite who has volunteered to help him. Diane MacIntyre, played with delightful waspy sangfroid by Jennifer Dorr White, becomes his unlikely guide to American life. She might seem completely unqualified, but she has a deep interest in Africa – not least because she was there with her husband when he recently died.
Swirling around the action and providing dance interludes to evocative drumming by Evan Goldhahn, is a mysterious figure described in the program as Nameless One played by Kristen D. Carpenter. Is she the spirit of Africa, the lost souls of the dear departed, the subconscious of all on stage, or all or none of these? In any case she seems to amplify the theme of loss while the quirks of things getting lost in translation provide a welcome dose of humor.
“Tell me, do you know of hot dogs?” asks Ater, trying to identify what has upset his stomach. “…They are not made from dog?”
Hotdogs prove to be the least of the challenges of moving to America. Soon, Ater must interpret Chicago gangs, learn to drive and cope with race-relations and work-place politics. Also trying to smooth Ater’s way are an African-American pastor, Reggie Hudson (Elton Beckett), and Eve (Jenny Vallancourt), Diane’s daughter. They, too, are facing big questions in their lives that Ater inadvertently helps them answer.
Diane and Eve find some understanding by talking to an off-stage shrink whose responses are suggested by drumbeats: an affective and charming device. The minimal set lends itself to a garden, a department store and a church, among other locales, but there is a slight over reliance on scenes in cars, suggested by two stools set side-by-side and imaginary steering wheels.
While the other characters grapple with their own demons, it is Ater’s experiences past and present that command our attention. We see America through his clear-eyed gaze and although he tries to love his new home, the weight of the past may prove too heavy a burden to bear. After one particularly grueling development, Ater wonders if he is really living, “…to run away from everyone and everything we had known … How do you do this? Is it not its own kind of dying?”
Since Africa has already had two successful runs in Philadelphia and Chicago and it deserves a bigger audience.