The inhuman experiences of the 20,000 children orphaned and traumatized by civil war that began in the late 1980s known as the Lost Boys of Sudan have been documented by journalists, documentarians and novelists, among others; yet their incredibly harrowing journeys and often triumphant stories deserve greater attention.
This, along with the responsibilities of those who bear witness to atrocity, is no doubt why Tammy Ryan wrote the play “Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods,” which explicates the imagined story of one Lost Boy relocated as a young adult to Pittsburgh in 2004. It’s also likely why the Kalamazoo Civic chose to produce the play this season. Though in many ways, this impetus mirrors the major driving force in the play’s plot: well-intentioned white people often miss the mark.
And that’s a phenomenon well worth talking about, but that’s not quite what this play does.
What this play does do is tell the story of Christine, the well-meaning white woman in question, a recent divorcee and stay-at-home mom of means, who invites Gabriel, a Sudanese refugee and Whole Foods employee she meets in the produce section, to her home for dinner, ostensibly so her teenage daughter can help him write a paper with which he’s struggling, and winds up asking him to move in with her and her daughter. Alex, the daughter, is the only one who raises an eyebrow at this peculiar arrangement that seems to lack any real motivation except Christine’s vaguely Christian sense that she must be helpful in the world, and the fact that she appears to need a project.
It should come as no surprise that things go terribly wrong, for practically everyone involved, and that the most enlightened character on stage, the one who unabashedly tells the truth and has very clear motivation for her words and actions, is a black woman.
The story by now has become a cliche, and if it drew attention to its tired tropes and more openly critiqued them, the play wouldn’t feel so dated. However, it stops short of doing real anti-racism work and focuses more on explication, on delivering information about the Sudanese civil war and its horrifying effects on its orphaned children who walked for miles to wretched encampments only to then be displaced again and again.
That in itself is, indeed, a service — to inform with some level of intimacy through storytelling. And the play does, indeed, raise questions about unearned privilege, the urgency to help and the limits of charity. But, much as Christine experiences, it’s impossible to leave the theater without wishing it could have done more.
However, the Civic’s production of this complicatedly flawed play, thoughtfully directed by Kevin Dodd, has shining moments despite its limitations. Staged in the round at the Parish Theatre, movement emerges in seemingly organic scene shifts around the stage with effective set design by Madeline Schnorr, aided by lighting and sound design by AnnMarie Miller. Piles of cardboard boxes and paper bags imprinted with the Whole Foods logo delineate the store from the park from the apartment, and also visually represent Gabriel’s declaration that “it’s a rat’s life I live here.”
Such smart choices bleed into many of the performances as well. Though Act I moves quite slowly, establishing story more than character, Act II is more explosive, largely because of powerful scenes between the well-cast actors. Most notably, Sheena Foster becomes a marvelous storyteller in the final scene as Christine, and has terrific scenes with Marcus Bechek who plays both a sympathetic and complex Gabriel. Carmen Dyson-Thomas plays one of the most powerful characters on stage as searing truth teller Segel Mohammed who calls out not just Christine, but the majority of the audience when she declares “Americans above all things want to feel good.”
And perhaps the strongest performances come from Emily Lancaster, who fully embodies the impatience and irreverence of a righteously indignant teenager and Alonzo Christopher Julian as Panther, Gabriel’s best friend who suffers no fools. They are dynamite together and create some of the strongest scenes in the show.
Theater has the potential to be a call to action, and the Kalamazoo Civic is to be commended for including political plays that raise difficult questions in its season. What this play is calling us to do, however, is but one difficult question among many about privilege, culture and responsibility.
Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre