by Ruth Ross
Unfolding in the same playing space, the double dramatic arcs of Pirira, by J. Stephen Brantley, make for a challenging, yet ultimately satisfying, 70 minutes of theater—challenging for the writer, challenging for the performers and challenging for the audience. The title, a Malawi name meaning “endurance or perseverance,” is apt for the regional première of this, Luna Stage’s first offering of the season and Ari Laura Kreith’s inaugural production as the theater’s new Artistic Director.
Inspired by Brantley’s experiences as a writer for Madonna’s nongovernmental organization Raising Malawi, Pirira explores the challenges of international aid across interpersonal borders and asks how we can bridge seemingly impossible divides. “Bringing this play to Luna allows us to frame our first season as a series of powerful cross-cultural conversations about central issues that affect us all,” said Kreith. Indeed, the tribal politics so rampant today in this country makes it “useful to look beyond…both our national boundaries and our personal biases to consider how our choices can impact people, for good or bad, in far-off places,” she continued.
In the Malawian city of Lilongwe on July 20, 2011, American aid worker Jack and MBA auditor Ericka are forced to take shelter in the storage room of Jack’s struggling NGO as a government-incited riot against protesters rages outside. Concomitantly, in the workroom of a Manhattan florist, Malawian college student Gilbert and his gay coworker Chad begin another day. The problems of clean water, girls’ education, HIV/AIDs, homophobia, gender-based violence and personal responsibility link the lives of these four young people, as the action ping-pongs back and forth between their situations. (Above: Naja Selby-Morton and John P. Keller)
Playwright Brantley is to be commended for a literate script filled with natural-sounding dialogue that reveals his characters’ inner natures and anxieties, so that what could be considered talky enlightens us and makes us care about these four individuals. Kudos to Director Kreith who has choreographed the quartet’s movement around the black box theater’s intimate playing space. Kreith has experience with Pirira, having directed it in 2013 at Theatre 167, her previous gig; the play then transferred to Off-Broadway where it won the New York Innovative Theater Award for Best Premiere of a Play.
The four actors exhibit great chemistry, most evident when they are disagreeing with each other. John P. Keller’s Jack exudes a sad earnestness stemming from the tragic loss of his daughter and his failure to achieve the NGO’s hoped-for results: providing water for Malawians and educating girls. A sense of resignation hangs about him like a cloak, yet he perseveres. In contrast, Naja Selby-Morton’s Ericka is wound as tight as a clock, brittle and a bit of a know-it-all, even if she has just recently arrived. Her upper middle-class upbringing—private school and Columbia University—have not prepared her for the realities on the ground in Malawi, and she fights fiercely against what she sees as failures of the aid program. The bombshell she drops all but stops the plot’s thread in its tracks and links it to what is going on in America (and all over the world) today vis à vis gender politics.
The two young men in Manhattan, Gilbert and Chad, have nothing in common, so it first appears, other than working for the same florist. Gilbert, played by Kevis Hillocks (left) with shy gravity and a credible Malawian accent, is more closed off, clearly a stranger in a strange land, seeking a college degree in hospitality so he can open a nightclub in Malawi while working several jobs to send money home to his family. Hillock’s regal demeanor and quiet strength make him an actor to watch.
His coworker Chad, portrayed by David Gow (below), is an outspoken homosexual haunted by the murder of his boyfriend by a homophobic mob in Washington DC when Chad was a Georgetown University student. His incessant questioning of Gilbert is, to be sure, cringe worthy, but his sunny disposition is winning. Freer with body language than Hillock’s Gilbert, Gow sashays around the stage, eats a Ring-Ding fastidiously and sprays water on his underarms. It was difficult to take one’s eyes off him.
Over the course of the play, these four dynamic characters learn about others—and themselves. Gilbert gets to know Chad and feel sympathy for his loss, despite what his Bible-quoting pastor back in Malawi has told him about homosexuality. And through a revelation linking her to a little Malawian girl, privileged Ericka comes to appreciate what Jack has been trying so valiantly to do. “No, we are not the same, but I am sorry for your loss,” Gilbert tells Chad, beautifully communicating the empathy that can bridge cultural divides.
One of the delights of Brantley’s script are the places where the two plots intersect. The audience’s physical, emotional and psychological recognition binds the characters and awakens us to how much we share as human beings, despite our differences of color, culture, class, sexual orientation and political ideals.
Tautly plotted Pirira questions how and why we stand up to injustice and inequality at home and abroad. What could be preachy is rendered dramatically involving. Given Luna Stage’s mission to develop and produce thought-provoking theater, it is a worthy production to begin a new season under a new artistic director. While the action may seem challenging to follow at first, you will feel rewarded by the time the lights go down.
Pirira will be performed at Luna Stage, 555 Valley Road, West Orange, Thursday through Sunday from October 4 to 28. For tickets and more information, call the box office at 973.395.5551 or visit www.lunastage.org/pirira online.
Note: The play contains some raw language and adult situations. Also, sitting in the upper rows of the theater will prevent your looking from side to side as if at a tennis match.