A Tale of One Play in Two Cities
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them. —D. H. Lawrence
In March 2016, I traveled from my home base in Pittsburgh to see two productions of my play Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods, first at the Portland Stage Company, a LORT theatre in Maine, and then in May, at the Omaha Community Playhouse, the largest civic theatre in Nebraska. Both companies are prominent theatres in their predominantly white cities where large populations of asylum seekers, refugees, and immigrants are arriving and resettling in increasing numbers. Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods is about Christine, a white woman who meets Gabriel, a Sudanese refugee in Pittsburgh in 2004 and invites him to live with her. The play began as an exploration of the difficulty in helping others, and one woman’s response to the refugee crisis exploding in southern Sudan. In the years since the play’s world premiere, our awareness of the world refugee crisis has expanded. Having the chance to see these two productions and witness the response from a diverse collision of audiences within months of each other, helped me see how my play had evolved in this new context, playing in these two ostensibly different but in many ways quintessentially American cities.
A Whole Foods store opened in my neighborhood. The first day I walked in I saw a young Sudanese ‘team member,’ feeding a papaya to a middle-aged white woman. The irony of that moment: the stories I knew he carried and that I assumed, this woman might not know, would become the basis for the play I would write.
The Lost Boys of Sudan
In the early 1990s, during the Second Sudanese Civil War, Arab fighters in the north were burning and destroying villages in the south, resulting in an exodus of young boys escaping into the bush. The boys, ranging in age from four to eighteen years old, gathered in the tens of thousands, trekking across Africa where they faced starvation, attacks by wild animals, and bombings before reaching refugee camps in Kenya, where they lived on a bowl of grain a day for ten years. In 2001, 3,600 boys from Kakuma were resettled in cities across the United States, including Atlanta, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Syracuse, St. Louis, Portland, Omaha, and Pittsburgh. After 9/11, this resettlement program was halted. In spring of 2003, I was invited to participate in a project with Catholic Charities and Playback Theatre working with a group of young men from Sudan; the resulting play entitled, Long Journey Home, gave voice to their experiences coming to this country. At the time I was as clueless as most Americans as to what they’d survived, but I was profoundly moved by their resilience, courage, faith, and sense of purpose.
After the project completed, a Whole Foods store opened in my neighborhood. The first day I walked in I saw a young Sudanese “team member,” feeding a papaya to a middle-aged white woman in the midst of the produce section surrounded by the abundance found in American grocery stores. The irony of that moment: the stories I knew he carried and that I assumed, this woman might not know, would become the basis for the play I would write. For the next seven years, I immersed myself in everything I could learn about the Sudan, the “lost boys,” the Dinka tribe, their stories, history, and culture, and began to imagine the story of the play. By 2008 I had a first draft, in 2009 it was developed at the New Harmony Project and in 2010, Premiere Stages and Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey co-produced the world premiere. In 2012 Lost Boy won the ATCA’s Francesca Primus Prize. Three years later, I got a call from Anita Stewart, artistic director of the Portland Stage Company that she wanted to produce it. Around the same time, the Omaha Community Playhouse did a reading, which led to their production. The timing was right; each theatre was looking for a play like this. Stewart wanted to connect with the growing African populations in Portland, when the actor who played Gabriel in New Jersey, Warner Miller, recommended it to her and dramaturg Heather Helinsky had given it to Ellen Struve, then literary manager at OCP for the same reason. But it wasn’t until I had my boots on the ground in both of these places, that I understood “in my belly,” (as the Dinka would say) why it was inevitable that these theatres produced Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods this year.
From Portland to Omaha
After arriving in Portland, a chatty taxicab driver took me on a tour, pointing out the harbor, the restaurants, the New England architecture. As we passed the Maine Historical Society on Congress Street, I asked him what the bunches of multi-colored objects hanging from the fence were: “Lobster buoys,” he said. What he didn’t mention was that it was part of an exhibit by University of Southern Maine, artist-in-residence, Natasha Mayers working with the Portland Public Schools, to paint seventy lobster buoys with the colors of flags representing seventy different countries the “New Mainers” hailed from. Walking around downtown, I sensed a tension that exists despite this welcome. The Old Mainers, many who’d lived there for generations find themselves sharing their city with a growing population of New Mainers: people who’d fled their faraway home countries, who are trying to adapt to this country and learn a new language, find a job, get an education, start a new life. At the theatre on opening night, a mainly white subscriber audience filled the seats, but there were also groups of New Mainers joining them, expectant, excited, and a little nervous.
In Omaha, driving down the wide boulevards, I didn’t see many dark skinned people, despite the fact that some 10,000 Sudanese lived there, along with many other refugees (mainly Burmese and Bhutanese, though this year 100 Syrians are expected to arrive, despite some initial opposition). At the first preview, there was the same mix as in Portland, a mostly white audience from the heartland of America, with Sudanese scattered among them. After the performance, I met a woman from Omaha, Michaela, who works for Lutheran Family Services, who told me she had just returned from a trip to Sudan with her Sudanese husband for a reunion with his mother who he hadn’t seen in twenty years. “My cousins want to take a picture of you,” she said. The smiling strangers put their arms around me. This would be the second time, in as many months, that I’d been in an audience with so many people who were connected to this story in a direct and visceral way.
The two productions took different approaches. The PSC’s production, directed by Markus Potter, was rooted in contemporary realism, with elements of theatricality reflected in the design; the Dinka’s prized cattle horns grew high above the modern Pittsburgh kitchen in Anita Stewart’s set. OCP’s production directed by Lara Marsh, was literally rooted in sand; the floor was made of ground cork to represent the desert in Kakuma, which led to staging blending the realities of Pittsburgh with the ever present pressure of Africa. Both directors did extensive research to achieve authenticity in costume design, dialects, and characterization. Each theatre also sought to engage their audiences in a lasting way, apart from of the play, by establishing partnerships with organizations in their communities.
The Play and Community Partnerships
After opening night PSC assembled a panel of experts for an Artistic Perspective discussion bringing historical, legal, and personal context to the play: Cathy Brueger, Sudanese historian from University of Connecticut; lawyers Jamie Wagner and Barbara Taylor working with asylum seekers in Portland; Ekhlas Ahmed, a young woman from Darfur who fled her country when she was thirteen years old and is now a teacher; and Rosemarie De Angelis, the founder and facilitator of Color of Community, an organization made up mostly of asylum seekers and refugees. During the course of the run, De Angelis was given unlimited comps to bring groups of people from countries such as Rwanda, Burundi, Djibouti, Sudan, and Somalia, who were “emotional and grateful to have some light shining on Africa.” After the performances, these audience members were visibly moved. “For some,” according to De Angelis, “this was their first time seeing a live play, it was a very powerful experience.”
De Angelis, who teaches English to nonnative speaking students, is a mother figure to the young people she mentors. “Our mother Rosemarie is like Christine,” said Ekhlas, “Sometimes she doesn’t know why she is in it, she only knows she wants to be.” Aside from the work she has done with her students, De Angelis has been fostering a young man from Rwanda for the past two years, who will legally become her son this year. While some critics found the idea that a woman would invite a refugee into her home to live with her implausible, De Angelis is living proof that truth is better than fiction. After the talkback I met another “Christine” waiting for me. “This is my son, Frank,” she said. A shy young man shook my hand, and said, “I am from South Sudan.” He looked into my eyes for a while without speaking, until his mother said, “Thank you for writing this play.”
On opening night, in Omaha, OCP partnered with Lutheran Family Services, to have a dinner fundraiser with food and wine from Africa for donors from both organizations. Before the dinner, I met Dhiu Jok, a former “lost boy” sponsored by LFS when he arrived, now working there to assist a new wave of people coming to Omaha. Dhiu Jok sat next to me during the performance, laughing at the humor the Sudanese always got, occasionally looking over and nodding, then falling silent, deep in his own memories. After the play he shared his perspective with a rapt audience, an emotional and powerful account that mirrored the play we’d just seen. During a standing ovation for Dhiu Jok, there were tears and broken hearts, both onstage and off, but also hope.
As a playwright I often sit in the comfort of my ‘I-don’t-explain-my-play-to audiences-in-talkbacks’ rule. But this audience wanted to have this conversation and I thought, maybe this is why I wrote this play.
The next night the local chapter of the Anti-Defamation League filled the house. In the talkback I was asked to speak about the Syrian refugee crisis, how to make Americans more welcoming to immigrants, questions I felt fell outside my playwright’s wheelhouse. Then a young woman wanted to talk about the scene in which Segel, a Somali woman, calls out Christine on the assumptions she’d been making based on the “privilege” of her “white skin.” I told the audience how I first heard the phrase “white privilege” in a global context, from the woman who inspired Segel, working on another project with Somali teenagers in 2004. An older gentleman then asked, “Isn’t that beside the point? What does racism have to do with genocide in Sudan?” At that moment, I thought, I’m not the person to facilitate this conversation. I wanted Cathy Brueger expert Sudanese historian from the Portland talkback or Rosemarie De Angelis, mother to a young man from Rwanda, to speak to this. As a playwright I often sit in the comfort of my “I-don’t-explain-my-play-to audiences-in-talkbacks” rule. This is the story I wrote, it’s up to you to interpret it. But this audience, black and white, young, old, American and refugee, leaned in. They wanted to have this conversation and I thought, maybe this is why I wrote this play. I’m telling a story about myself, about my desire “to do some good in the world,” in the context of my own white privilege. Near the end of the scene, Christine says, “Am I supposed to feel guilty, now?” Segel responds, “I don’t give a damn how you feel, the only thing that matters is what are you going to do…in other words, what is your responsibility?”
The Knock at the Door
In 2003, I wanted to write a story about “Lost Boys of Sudan.” In 2016, it’s become any refugee’s story, but it’s also, a wider American story. How do we respond to people coming to our shores? Build a wall, or allow ourselves to “crack open” as Barbara Taylor, said in the discussion at PSC: She suggested that the “melting pot” metaphor, “is the wrong metaphor,” what if instead we embraced the beautiful “mosaic” we are? To do that we have to see each other, past our fears, past our privilege, with open hearts and imagination. Theatre has the ability to help with that. As a writer, I want to be open to whatever stories present themselves to me. When a story comes, even if it is not our own, it is a knock on the door, we can answer it, or not. It may ask us to look outside our own houses. I learned this year, that it may take time, but it’s worth it.