Incredibly ambitious, intense and timely
|Sideshow Theatre Company presents|
|truth and reconciliation|
Review by Lauren Whalen
In my review of Phantom Pain, I observed how many more Chicago theater companies are ready and willing to tackle tough topics. Even from, say, a year ago, the difference is remarkable. Now more than ever, it is essential for Americans to understand our own history and the world’s, so as not to repeat the bloody mistakes of the past. Now in its tenth season, Sideshow Theatre Company has never shied away from the rough stuff: last season’s Mai Dang Lao (which I reviewed, coincidentally, the night Donald Trump’s Chicago rally was canceled due to protestors) riffed on a real-life incident to explore power, control and what we now know as “alternative facts.” Fresh from directing Goodman Theatre’s explosive Gloria, Sideshow Artistic Director Jonathan L. Green helms truth and reconciliation, a quick but stark look at five conflicts, over 30 years, with 22 actors. While playwright debbie tucker green’s style isn’t for everyone, truth and reconciliation has a fantastic set, excellent staging and several performances that will both haunt and provoke.
truth and reconciliation opens with the entire cast walking on to a stage festooned with meaningful graffiti, and taking their places at chairs, school desks and benches to see what will happen before them. Like the audience, the actors observe each scene with concern and care, or sometimes with blank faces. The play is a series of vignettes centering on five different conflicts: South Africa, Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Bosnia and Zimbabwe. The oldest player is an elderly white woman, the youngest, a schoolgirl in a white blouse and black jumper. There’s a young white man in glasses and fatigues, women in colorful garb, a pregnant young woman with a hijab and long skirt. Each has a mission, an objective, something to say. Each is part of a conflict that will change their life.
This is the first debbie tucker green play I’ve seen, and her writing style is not for everyone. green uses a lot of repetition, and the dialogue is reminiscent of blank verse. Additionally, there’s little to no exposition, leaving the audience to put together who is in what story, which conflict is which and how it all intertwines. That’s a tall order for 60 minutes, especially when so many players are involved. As with any multi-storyline plot, some are more compelling than others (the Northern Ireland storyline, for example, basically descends into a lot of yelling).
Fortunately, the director, production team and actors compensate for the script’s small set of faults. Yu Shibagaki’s scenic design is stark and powerful, putting the audience right in the moment. Michael Huey’s sound design does the same, and Eva Breneman’s dialect coaching is distinctive and impeccable, with each actor sounding completely natural. Green’s staging successfully intimidates the audience (so many people onstage at once, scrutinizing each other’s every move, is striking) and puts them in intimate cahoots with the characters, even those whose motives are less than savory.
Additionally, the cast is full of impressive resumes and even more notable skills. Ashley Crowe has a small but memorable part as a Zimbabwean woman hell-bent on accountability on the part of her former lover, and Tiffany Renee Johnson shines as a Rwandan widow who will stop at nothing to get to the truth. Though Isabel Thompson’s character, a pregnant Bosnian woman, rarely speaks, her hollow eyes speak entire monologues. And in the play’s closing and most powerful scene, Sam Guinan-Nyhart and Netta Walker have an explosive, beautifully ugly exchange that is impossible to look away from.
truth and reconciliation isn’t perfect and is incredibly ambitious. On the whole, however, it succeeds, exploring the nuance and humanity behind conflicts small and large. With sure and confident direction, stellar production values and an incredible cast, truth and reconciliation is an intense and provocative hour that portrays human conflict with rude and brutal grace.
truth and reconciliation continues through April 16th at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave. (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $20-30, and are available online through VIctoryGardens.org (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at SideshowTheatre.org and VictoryGardens.org. (Running time: 60 minutes with no intermission)
Photos by Jonathan L. Green
Latrel Crawford (South African Son), Ashley Crowe (Zimbabwean Woman), Travis Delgado (Rwandan Man), Almedia Lee Exum (South African Daughter), Sam Guinan-Nyhart (South African Officer), David Lawrence Hamilton (Rwandan Husband), Kayla Raelle Holder (Bosnian Woman’s Friend), Michael Holding (Serbian Man 2), Ann James (Northern Irish Woman), Tiffany Renee Johnson (Rwandan Widow), Ian Martin (Zimbabwean Husband), Jennifer Mathews (Northern Irish Woman A), Éamonn McDonagh (Northern Irish Man B), Monette McLin (South African Mama), Carolyn Nelson (South African Nana), Tiffany Oglesby (Zimbabwean Wife), Jeremy Pfaff (Northern Irish Man A), Bradford Stevens (Rwandan Grandfather), Keith Surney (Rwandan Brother), Isabel Thompson (Bosnian Woman), Netta Walker (South African Sister), Sean Wiberg (Serbian Man 1), Elaine C. Bell, David Guy, Christian Isley, Darian Tene (understudies)
behind the scenes
Jonathan L. Green (director, photos), Yu Shibagaki (scenic design), Noël Huntzinger (costume design), Jared Gooding (lighting design), Michael Huey (sound design), Eva Breneman (dialect design), Gabrielle Randle (dramaturg), Colleen Layton (stage manager), Ben Jones (production manager)