Objects in the Mirror

Lily Mojekwu (Luopu Workolo), Daniel Kyri (Shedrick Yarkpai) and Breon Arzell (Zaza Workolo)

In art, truth — the search for it, the lack of it and the emotional pain these activities impose — is a universal concern. What is human life if not the constant pursuit of trustworthy community and informational reliability? The struggle provides endless creative inspiration. Yet somehow, in 2017 America, “Objects in the Mirror,” the work of Chicago native Charles Smith, arrives on the Goodman Theatre stage that much more urgently.

As I write these words, our country is struggling through a nascent Constitutional crisis that has its roots in the mysterious relationship between the Trump administration and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. It could be months, even years before facts are laid bare and outcomes are decided. And while this catastrophe plays itself out on the world stage, works of art such as “Objects” remind us of an inescapable, universal truth. The reckoning always arrives. Always.

Playwright Charles Smith met a young, hungry actor in Adelaide, Australia in 2009. As press materials detail, Smith’s friendship with Shedrick Yarkpai grew, ultimately resulting in this story of the actor’s “valiant 10+ year (1995-2007) journey from war-torn Liberia through a number of refugee camps in Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire, before his final relocation” to the Land Down Under.

As played by Chicago actor Daniel Kyri, Shedrick is a conflicted survivor: loyal, earnest and brokenhearted over separation from his mother Luopu (the phenomenal Lily Mojekwu). He is determined to build a life of which he can be proud, despite years of human horror and Dark Side temptation.

Though it’s impossible to be certain of playwright Smith’s process, it’s hard to overlook the parallels between Liberia’s brutal warlord Charles Taylor and the current President of the United States. The foot soldiers and water carriers of both regimes are desperate and disillusioned. In Shedrick’s retelling of his personal and national history, any community and security is sometimes preferable to frightened, isolated starvation. The Trump administration has steered clear of indiscriminate murder to be sure, but it’s not hard to feel the country slipping down an increasingly deep and morally corrupt surface.

It’s a testament to Yarkpai’s story, Smith’s writing and Goodman Theatre resident director Chuck Smith (no relation) that “Objects” can feel so universal and personal, even as the action takes place “over there.” It also helps that every cast member is exquisitely talented and well chosen. In addition to powerful work from Kyri and the remarkable Mojekwu, Allen Gilmore as Uncle John Workolo is a revelation.

Workolo is the relentless center holding his tortured family together. His personal motto, repeated more than once during the play’s two-hour, 15-minute runtime, is that his kin and he survive or fall as one. He channels his considerable energies and focus into the noble pursuit of his family’s survival. He also seeks a life of which he can be proud — one in which a relationship with the truth is dictated by circumstances of the moment. Uncle John thinks on his feet, but his decisions are not always kind. Gilmore wrings every bit of emotionally-relatable nuance out of the material.

Ryan Kitley also turns in a good performance as Rob Mosher, an Australian lawyer who takes a personal interest in young Shedrick. The beauty of Kitley’s turn, the delicate artistry in fact of the entire cast, lies in uncertainty.

It’s possible to believe every player in Shedrick’s story means well without any confidence that anyone is telling the truth. Shedrick himself, while certainly sympathetic, demonstrates unreliability as a narrator. Does he make up drug experiences as a test of Mosher’s loyalty, as he tells Uncle John, or is his father figure the one being tried?

“Objects in the Mirror” is a gripping piece about the physical, metaphorical and spiritual challenges involved in living authentically. It deserves a wide audience.

“Objects in the Mirror” runs through June 4 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn, Chicago, IL. For information or tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit the Goodman Theatre website.

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Marked Ebola Retreat In West Africa A Victory For Public Health – And Democracy (February 2, 2015)

Ebola

What a difference just a few months can make. Last weekend writer Morimitsu Onishi of The New York Times published a piece entitled, “As Ebola Ebbs in Africa, Focus Turns From Death to Life.” The article reveals the stunning fact that “new Ebola cases in Liberia, where streets were littered with the dead just a few months ago, now number in the single digits, according to the World Health Organization.”

The very next day, the Times ran a companion story, “Ebola Drug Trial Is Halted for Lack of Patients.” Given the rampant media hysteria that ran roughshod over the nation’s political discourse less than three months ago, the developments are nothing short of miraculous. From dangerous pandemic to virtually neutralized, the retreat of the Ebola threat is something we can come together to celebrate in a bipartisan way. Well…almost all of us.

With immigration reform scheduled to remain a hot button topic in the United States for the remainder of 2015, retired Georgia physician and Republican House member Phil Gingrey will need to find a new way to stoke his constituency’s fear of brown people. You may recall that Gingrey gave a July 2014 interview toNBC News’ Luke Russert, in which he said, “The border patrol gave us a list of the diseases that they’re concerned about, and Ebola was one of those…I can’t tell you specifically that there were any cases of Ebola, I don’t think there were, but of course Tuberculosis, Chagas disease, many – small pox, some of the infectious diseases of children, all of these are concerns.”

The fact that Ebola never existed in Central America proved no deterrent to Gingrey’s hate mongering.

Then in October 2014, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson dumbed down the dialogue a little further by suggesting that terrorist group ISIS was using Ebola-infected patients as weapons of war. In a nearly commendable use of negatives to put forth an insane idea as accepted, Johnson told Newsmax TV, “You really don’t even want to think about, you really don’t even want to talk about, but we should do everything possible to defend ourselves against that possibility because I think that is a real and present danger.”

And while it’s clear that no one really listens to her anymore, Sarah Palin demonstrated that Ebola hysteria and stupidity are not the exclusive purview of the white male wing of the GOP. Writing an “open, verbal letter (huh?)” to President Obama, the former Alaskan Governor called for swift and immediate “invasionary” action” against the disease. As though Ebola were just a rogue US territory that could be subdued through artillery.

For most sane people, news of Ebola’s ebb is a welcome delight, the more so because it has been a democratic phenomenon, a win for public health, a triumph of information and a symbol of what strained communities can accomplish when they work together. As Onishi writes, “While many have emphasized the enormous assistance hauled into the region by the United States and international organizations, there is strong evidence, especially here in Monrovia, that the biggest change came from the precautions taken by residents themselves.”

It’s a watershed, revolutionary idea for the doggedly interventionist faction of the Republican Party. Maybe, just maybe our “leadership (heavy handed military action)” in every global crisis is not necessary to its resolution. We contributed badly needed funds and expertise, certainly. But a quick review of the quotes above is more than enough to suggest that America’s politically motivated contributions to the conversation often lack helpfulness (to understate things just a bit).

Congratulations are in order to every civic leader, health professional (many of them American) and citizen who has worked to eradicate the threat of Ebola from the daily lives of people in Liberia, Sierre Leone and Guinea. Schools are reopening and the streets safer for human interaction. There are many lessons to be learned from the crisis, and fortunately, we have the benefit of the recency effect. Paranoid talk is cheap and dangerous.