By Manning Harris
Since 1999, the Essential Theatre has presented 23 new plays by Georgia authors; now in Festival 2014 they’re presenting Theroun D’arcy Patterson’s “That Uganda Play,” running through Aug. 17 in repertory with “Ravens and Seagulls”; the two plays are co-winners of the Playwriting Award.
“That Uganda Play” is having its world premiere, directed by Amber Bradshaw. Perhaps you’ve heard of the draconian laws, passed and repealed and now “holding” in Uganda. In program notes: “In December 2013 the Parliament of Uganda passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, which intensified existing sanctions…to new levels of severity…For the new category of “aggravated homosexuality, the proposed penalty was death.”
There was a worldwide outcry against such harshness. The penalty was later mitigated; and on July 31, 2014, the law was overturned—but only because of a legal technicality. Fear of HIV/AIDS is quite naturally mixed up in all this. The play moves from America to Africa and back again.
Why America? Because of the active participation of extreme right wing “Christian” organizations (in the play known simply as The Foundation), the Ugandan pot was stirred up to a boiling point. Is all this starting to sound complicated? Wait until a plethora of characters starts to share their cheerless lives with us.
Dembe (Olubajo Sonubi) is a Ugandan official who says, “I want to grow goodness in my country.” But a few minutes later he says, “I would hunt down my own family” if they were “confirmed homosexual people.” So much for Dembe’s goodness. But he was physically abused as a child by his own sister Tamale (Tiffany Denise Mitchenor); that accounts, in part, for his own heedless cruelty.
Meanwhile, in America, Reed (Brody Wellmaker) can find no peace with his ambitious, truculent wife Hannah (Jennifer Alice Acker). Nor can he find solace from his own father, Douglas (well played by Alex Van), who is the head of The Foundation. “Is there really nothing between us?” a desperate Reed asks his father. No, there isn’t. Fortunately, Douglas dies, but not soon enough. Reed, a decent young man, is thus riddled by indecision and doubt.
There are no happy people in this play. Of course it’s a serious piece, but in Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies you find jesters, fools, or moments of levity. Not here.
Nevertheless, playwright Patterson is dealing with important, powerful issues, and at times his dialogue crackles and pops with tension. But there is a lack of cohesiveness that I hope he irons out, because he’s talented, and one senses he has a genuine concern for his theme and characters.
Speaking of themes, one of the major ones for me is the rampant disease of disconnection between human beings. “Communication is awfully hard between people,” one of Tennessee Williams’ characters once remarked, and that is evident in “Uganda.”
As for characters, there are quite a few here, too many for me to attempt to define everybody’s relationship to everybody else. For example, Kevin Stillwell plays “The Jackal,” who lurks behind and beside people and sometimes says their lines in tandem with them. You see, there’s a touch of “magical realism” in the play, but it’s usually more confusing than helpful.
“That Uganda Play” has some very good actors; besides the ones already mentioned, there are Tiffany Denise Mitchenor, Portia Cue, Blaire Hillman, and Sedonia Monet.
Because of its subject matter and some powerful performances, “Uganda” is worth seeing; more fine tuning will make it even more so. Writer Joan Didion once said, “Terror is the given of the place.” She was speaking of El Salvador, but the quote also applies to Uganda.
For tickets and information, visit essentialtheatre.com.