Chicago Theatre Review
What’s in a Name?
Objects in the Mirror – Goodman Theatre
Charles Smith’s searing new biographic drama takes its title from the advice printed on a car’s rearview mirror. The auto manufacturer warns that “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” It’s a similar warning that Uncle John offers to Shedrick, his young nephew, into whose care the boy has been placed. As Shedrick is fighting to regain his own name and independence, the teenager is reminded that things aren’t always as they seem.
This unbelievably riveting and moving new play, first developed in a production at Goodman’s New Stages Festival, is inspired by true events from the young life of a Liberian actor Smith met in Australia in 2009. The real Shedrick Yarkpai, now fulfilling his dreams as a professional actor, was appearing in the title role of Charles Smith’s play, “Free Man of Color.” As a friendship developed between Smith and Yarkpai, the playwright learned about the unthinkable life the young man had led as a refugee, constantly on the run with his uncle and cousins. Smith was inspired by this brave boy’s story, his journey through war-torn Liberia, surviving among the inhuman makeshift camps of Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire and his final relocation to Adelaide, Australia. This play is a tribute to the grit and determination of the human spirit, particularly of one young man’s quest for a better life.
When his tiny village in Liberia is plunged into a raging war, Shedrick’s mother, Luopu Workolo is worried that her young son will be either killed or forced into becoming a soldier. She allows her brother, Uncle John Workolo, to take Shedrick with him and his own son, Zaza, as they flee the danger and hostility of Liberia. Before Shedrick leaves his mother makes him promise he’ll obey his uncle and do everything necessary to survive. She also begs him to never forget her.
For Shedrick and his uncle and cousin, the road to freedom is riddled with risk, menace and death. When Zaza makes a decision to leave one of the camps by night and make it on his own, he’s killed. John pays a storywriter to draft a biography based on Zaza’s life, which he gives to Shadrick to commit to memory as his own. The boy’s given his cousin’s name and is told to call his uncle Papa, so that he can blend in as John’s immediate family. Thus it will be easier for them to immigrate to Australia together. For the rest of the play Shedrick wants nothing more than to get his name back.
While working at an Australian teen center with other young refugees, Shedrick becomes close friends with Rob Mosher, a kindly lawyer, who hires the teenager to paint his house. Trusting and confiding in this white man, Shedrick relates his hellacious tale of survival, as well as the boy’s compulsion to regain his own name. When Uncle John learns about Mr. Mosher’s attempt to help Zaza become Shedrick once again, and how many of the family’s secrets the lawyer knows, it opens up a whole new can of worms, that endangers the lives of the entire family.
Directed with compassion and ferocity by Chuck Smith (no relation to the playwright), this production is absolutely electrifying. It’s a fantastic story and incomprehensible to imagine that it’s all true. The production, which sports a small cast of only five talented actors, almost seems dwarfed upon the Albert stage. But Riccardo Hernandez’s simple, fluid, stylized scenic design accentuates the heroic narrative of this play. Beautifully lit by John Culbert, with creative projection work by Mike Tutaj, and a sound created by Ray Nardelli, this epic sage sprawls across the Goodman theatre like a tale from mythology. Birgit Rattenborg Wise’s realistic costumes are both ethnically authentic and contemporary. A great thank you for the wonderful dialect work that’s provided by Eva Breneman, allowing believable yet understandable accents flavor Smith’s almost poetic dialogue.
The cast is led by one of Chicago’s most appealing and honest young actors, Daniel Kyri. Outstanding in Chicago Shakespeare’s “Tug of War,” two enormous, heroic historical productions, and brilliantly taking charge in Steppenwolf’s “Monster,” Kyri makes his debut at the Goodman in this role. But this actor doesn’t simply play Kedrick. He is Kedrick. Kyri’s the main character, but also the heart and soul of this production. When speaking, the words tumble forth as if the young boy is truly expressing his own thoughts and ideas. When listening to the others around him, the actor is never passive; he’s always processing what he’s hearing and feeling, subtly conveying everything to the audience. Daniel Kyri is, in a word, magnificent. He’s the real deal in this role.
Allen Gilmore is electrifying as Uncle John. He brings more passion and empathy to this character than seen in a long time on any stage. Hiding his constant fear, projecting his love and a need to protect his family, makes Gilmore the embodiment of strength and familial pride. His scene with Ryan Kitley, as Rob Moser, sizzles with underlying mistrust and fear. John masks his true feelings as best he can, while still laying it on the line for this man. Ryan Kitley plays a kind, generous, caring man who might not be fully trustworthy or believable. But his concern for this young boy who’s suffered so much feels honest and heartfelt.
Lily Mojekwu is stunning in her few scenes as Luopu Workolo, Shedrick’s loving and self-sacrificing mother. This is a woman who has endured the hell that festers in this cesspool of Africa and survived. Ms. Mojekwu is articulate, courageous and resolute in the role, and her love for her child is foremost in everything she says and does. The scene where she finally talks to Shedrick on the phone is among the most moving pieces of theatre that audiences are likely to ever experience. And Breon Arzell, known throughout Chicagoland as a talented choreographer and performer, also makes his Goodman debut in this role. So excellent as Zaza, Arzell portrays a typical, mischievous teenager, a boy who doesn’t like being told what he can and can’t do by anyone. As Shedrick’s cousin, the teenager is almost like a brother to the boy, and his eventual demise leaves a hole in this story that can’t be erased.
Uncle John warns Shedrick that objects we see in a mirror may not be as they appear. They may be filled with danger and looked at skeptically. All of the characters in Smith’s play need to heed this wise advice. While we’d like to think we can trust the person offering help and sagely counsel, giving encouragement and positive recommendations, he may not be all he seems. Then again he might be honest, authentic and on the up-and-up. But the warning stands strong and clear. Shedrick learns this lesson from the others around him and, in the final analysis, makes his own choices.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 8-June 4 by the Goodman Theatre in the Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling them at 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Objects.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.