3.5 out of 4 stars
“Sister Africa” draws from playwright Stephanie Liss’ own experiences travelling to the Democratic Republic of the Congo with members of Jewish World Watch, an activist organization dedicated to ending genocide and mass atrocities worldwide and to providing support and building resilience to those living in conflict-affected communities. A play heavily based in fact and research allows the audience gains plenty of perspective in this 80 minute production on the very real issues of women and children in regards to rape, torture, and murder that have plagued central Africa over the years. A work that imprints themes of identity, community and tragedy that deeply resonates and transcends time.
Aesthetically, this black box performance wonderfully integrates the use of a divided stage by simple white chalky paint on the walls and floor. The simple geometric shapes of squares and curved lines transform the space into location, while harmonizing with the physical set pieces. Two worlds are divided by a winding river drawn between squares of a city scape for the synagogue in America and the arched hills of Central Africa on the opposite wall. The narrative focus is upon two cultures, Jews and Congolese, who have lived through unspeakable horrors and how they can help to heal each other. Liss’ production is based on hundreds of hours of interviews- not only with the victims of rape and torture, but with child soldiers, the staff of Jewish World Watch and its co-founder and president, Janice Kamenir Reznik. When asked by her Rabbi, Miriam, a faithful parishioner and a composite of Reznik and Liss, volunteers to be sent abroad to the Heal Africa Center in Goma. Heal Africa is an organization striving to aid the cause in helping provide physical, spiritual and mental healing to those affected by the extreme violence, mass population displacements, widespread rape, and a collapse of public health services.
A play heavily focused on emotional turmoil requires keen attention to the actor’s delivery and the balance between passion and over dramatization is a fine line. Jimmy Binns conveys a powerful confessional soliloquy in his portrayal of the Rabbi. The religious leader is dismayed by the violence of the world and struggles with his role being so far away from the front lines of the program he advocates for. Binns’ unabashed eye contact reaches into the audience and bares down on the hard questions of humanity. The theme of silence and being a bystander allows hatred to reign is a strong and powerful message within this work, which is so potent in today’s world climate. Alongside this theme there is a plea to understand “what makes a man push so far past his soul” and a mother’s cry for a blessing. The performance is filled with challenging the roles of man, woman and child. Stories filled with men trying to understand how to be good and those trying to defend their opinions. Stories filled with women trying to understand the pain of others and how to survive, only to be brutally abused. Stories filled with children innocent to the world and their naivety leading their choices. For centuries, the trope of collecting firewood is described as isolating oneself in the wild where you could fall prey to fierce animals, but what if the wild animals was man? The very real truth of attempting to collect firewood outside of the refugee camps were the dangers of children being abducted into service, raped or killed. Mama Jette is a composite of women the playwright met in conflicted areas of the Congo and played by Takesha Meshe Kizart. Many personal accounts woven into one heartbreaking illustration depicted intimately to the audience. Kizart hones in upon the wide range of emotions these women reflect in the face of travesty. Convincingly embodying the laughter and happiness of talking about one’s family to the sheer terror of one’s home under siege. Kizart rips into your soul as you learn the stories of countless women who have suffered in Central Africa’s constant conflict. Kizart’s voice ebbs and flows so smoothly throughout the room that if you were to sit there with eyes closed in the darkness of the audience, you could feel the emotional strain of Mama Jette. Victims are not just the women being raped or the children being murdered, but also the young naïve bitter angry boys, who are forced to become child soldiers in a war they do not understand. They face hard decisions between right and wrong, pleasure and pain, life and death. Christopher McClellan brings to light those multi-faceted children by playing Cesar, a Congolese teenage solider. McClellan possesses such range and passion, it’s impossible not to become fully immersed in Cesar’s story of how he gained his new role. McClellan’s attention to subtle facial reactions is commendable when playing a confused and strained young person being blinded by ignorance and passion.
To this day, there are still civil unrest and political tension in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Between 1994 and 2003 there is an estimated 5 million lives lost, yet rebel groups continue to operate and hinder peace for Central Africa. This play exemplifies across the spectrum of humanity, everyone is struggling with the after effects or current problems of violence. One village, one life. Community is defined as a feeling of fellowship with others as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals. The overarching theme of religion stands out within this work as the Jewish community reaches out to aide those affected by the violence in the Congo after experiencing the horrors in their own community with the Holocaust. Community isn’t just bound to physical and cultural barriers though, it’s a global community coming together to express the atrocities happening affect everyone.
From the hills of the Congo into the walls of the Athenaeum Theater, the playwright unflinchingly gives voice to the voiceless. A raw and compelling work that inspires to take action and do more for those around us that suffer silently. Taking the unfiltered truth of the world from research and personal accounts and transforming them into a coherent concrete narrative takes talent. Liss accomplishes this in the writing of such a dynamic and moving piece, while the actors deliver Liss’ strong messages. The importance of the action is not measured by its grandeur, but by its merit. The simplicity of listening, or giving a prayer or thought of goodwill is a simple comfort anyone can provide. We often forget the small actions taken can make a profound affect, even on one individual. We all occupy this earth together and our stories are globally connected, so why not help break the silence when in the face of injustice?
To learn more about Jewish World Watch, please visit www.jewishworldwatch.org
“Sister Africa” is playing now through September 10th at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago, IL. For tickets please contact the box office at www.athenaeumtheatre.org or by calling 773-935-6875.
Mary Crylen is a photographer and writer based in Chicago. She is an alum of Southern Illinois University of Carbondale with a B.A. in English and a B.A. in Photography. She possesses a sincere passion for the arts and believes zeal shows through work. Follow her on Twitter!