nytheatre.com review by Garry Schrader
August 18, 2006
"I'm not sure how, but after a year in Africa, you can tell when a monkey wants your pizza."
Julia Barnett and Africa meet cute. "God and I had this deal, and He broke our bargain." He was supposed to send her on missionary work to Switzerland, it seems, but then reneged, and she ended up where she had made it clear to Him she never wanted to go. We are never told just why this Indiana native had an aversion to (as the press release unfortunately calls it) "the Dark Continent," but by the end of this play she has been won over: "I'm going back!" God, it is implied, knew what He was doing when He sent her there.
Barnett frames her story (and it is clearly autobiographical) as a slide show presentation of her missionary work in East Africa with the African Children's Choir, and later in relief efforts in the Southern Sudan and Rwanda. Now and then, lights come up elsewhere on the stage, Barnett steps away from her lectern and plays a scene illustrative of her efforts to become acculturated to a life very different from the one she had known. She bathes in a bucket, eats ants and grasshoppers ("much better if you tear off the legs," advises the local chef), learns Swahili (and subsequently finds that she has taken on the lisp of her teacher), tries to moderate between competing condescensions (of the locals to the intruders, who are dismissively called—I think—muzunya, and of her fellow missionaries to the local customs: "T-A-B! That's Africa, babe!") And, she falls in love with an African man.
Though Barnett does not turn away from the misery of much that she encounters—official corruption, thousands of children orphaned from AIDS, thousands more dead on a forced march, an infant born out of wedlock rescued from a garbage heap, and the tragic murder of someone close to her—she clearly does not want the evening to be a downer: the tone remains light, with much fish-out-of-water humor, and our heroine remains plucky and hopeful.
The production values are more professional than one often finds in a Fringe production. Andrew Garman has provided strong direction and staged the piece well in CSC's large space. The evocative technical design is by Gene Arnold. And Barnett is given consistently strong support from fellow cast members Gbenga Akinnagbe, Joshua Olatunde, General Fermon Judd, and Natalie Gold.
However one feels about the sometimes dubious enterprise of promoting Christianity in foreign cultures, once you have seen Ms. Barnett's appealing presentation, you will have no question that she has done valuable, noble work, and helped to give hope to many children who would have had only bleak futures. Ten percent of proceeds from her play go to the African Children's Choir. Once you hear them sing, you'll want the CD, too.