It’s been a rough month for well-meaning white guys.
First there was the critical backlash levelled at California activist-filmmaker Jason Russell over his hugely popular Kony 2012 video – a heartfelt if simplistic attempt to raise awareness about Uganda’s child soldiers.
Now, in Matthew MacKenzie’s new play SIA, a fictional Canadian volunteer at a Liberian refugee camp is held hostage and tortured for the sin of western naivety.
MacKenzie’s heavy-handed drama, getting an equally blunt premiere production from Cahoots Theatre Company, also deals with African child soldiers. In this case, Abraham (Thomas Olajide), the hostage-taker, is a former teenage recruit of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor. He has befriended young Toronto student Nicholas Summers (Brendan McMurtry-Howlett), who is interviewing refugees in the Ghana-based camp.
But when the play opens, Abraham has gotten Nicholas roaring drunk and led him to a garbage-strewn hideout. There, he ties and handcuffs him to a chair and declares he won’t be released until the European court trying “The Butcher” (as Taylor is referred to here) agrees not to put one of its prosecution witnesses on the stand.
MacKenzie uses this setup to dramatize, through the desperate Abraham, the trauma of young Liberians who were abducted and turned into soldiers or sex slaves by Taylor’s rebel army during the 1990s. It also affords an opportunity for some good old Canadian self-laceration from Nicholas, who bemoans his First World ignorance and gullibility. Abraham hardly needs to torture him, since the guy seems more than willing to beat himself up.
As the two men alternately rail at each other and resume their former camaraderie – which includes sharing some cocaine – MacKenzie keeps cutting to sunny flashbacks from Abraham’s pre-war life. We see him as a stern but loving 16-year-old brother, tutoring his precocious 11-year-old sister Sia (Jajube Mandiela), who has been chosen to speak before a UN delegation. As it turns out, these memories hold the key to Abraham’s mysterious motive in kidnapping Nicholas. They are also the only semi-entertaining scenes in Cahoots’s klunky staging.
The play begs credulity from the moment a ginger-haired McMurtry-Howlett enters as the wasted Nicholas, coming on like Neil Patrick Harris doing one of his off-the-hook self-parodies. From there, the actor proceeds to make Nicholas as abrasive and unsympathetic as possible. He may have created a new stereotype here: the Ugly Canadian.
His overheated performance is matched by Olajide, who rages impressively but gives us little insight into his damaged character. His best moments – even if they are somewhat stiff – are those with a dynamic Mandiela as the sassy kid sister.
Nina Lee Aquino’s direction is coarse, with a few exceptions. In the flashback sequences, she makes gentle use of Michelle Ramsay’s lighting, which illuminates a long, ragged wall built of clear plastic bottles – the most salient feature of Lindsay Anne Black’s junkyard set. The violent scenes between Abraham and Nicholas cry out for a fight director.
MacKenzie, an Edmonton native who won the 2010 Alberta Playwriting Competition with this play, has based the story on his own experiences visiting Ghana’s Buduburam Liberian refugee camp. His invented hostage situation does make a point – the international alarm raised over one Canadian’s abduction stands in stark contrast to the lack of attention paid to the many African kids who were stolen away by Taylor and his ilk.
But in other respects the scenario feels artificial. As it plays out, it smacks more of Hollywood than of personal observation.
Still, SIA contains an important message, which is particularly pertinent in light of the Kony 2012 campaign: While it’s imperative to bring monsters like Charles Taylor and Joseph Kony to justice, it might be more fruitful to put money and resources into helping the generation of young Africans that they brutalized. It’s just a shame MacKenzie hasn’t found a more effective way to put that message across.
SIA runs until April 15.
Special to The Globe and Mail
- Written by Matthew MacKenzie
- Directed by Nina Lee Aquino
- Starring Jajube Mandiela, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett and Thomas Olajide
- A Cahoots Theatre Company production
- At Factory Studio Theatre in Toronto
- 1.5 stars