Long a mainstay of finding and producing rich scripts from playwrights around the state courtesy of its annual playwriting award, Essential Theatre has just opened the 16th season of its yearly festival with the topical, buzz-worthy That Uganda Play. It’s a bold drama by a talented playwright, but its shaky narrative structure prevents it from being a fully-developed work.
Running at the festival’s new home at the West End Performing Arts Center through August 16, That Uganda Play is a world premiere by actor and playwright Theroun D’Arcy Patterson. (Patterson won the 2011 Essential Theatre Award for his family drama A Thousand Circlets as well). It takes place circa 2009, criss-crossing from Uganda to the United States, where the antigay resolution of Uganda has made international news — and created a lot of unrest for those living in the area.
Dembe Bahadur (Olubajo Sonubi), a former soldier and now a member of the Ugandan Parliament, and Reed Thomas (Brody Wellmaker) are working together on what Reed feels is a bill that will address the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country. Reed, in line to take over a Christian organization known as The Foundation that his father runs, is a little shocked to find out later that Dembe has been quoted in a newspaper and seems to be pushing more of an antigay bill than what he thought they were sculpting.
Back home, Reed and his wife, Hannah (Jennifer Alice Acker), have a strained relationship. Complicating matters is the fact he is haunted by a dream involving a woman from his past and some unresolved matters.
Two of the play’s other central characters include Tamale Acanit (Tiffany Denise Mitchenor) and Jennifer Frye (Blaire Hillman), two women who have begun a relationship, and Masani (Portia Cue), who is Dembe’s sister.
To his credit, Patterson has created anything but a cookie-cutter production. (The playwright got the idea for the work when surfing the Internet and reading about the bill.) That Uganda Play is complex and full of characters. Dembe and Tamale have a secret connection; some of the other relationships begin to interestingly parallel each other.
Patterson hasn’t taken the easy way out, but this project is often muddled and too ambitious. The play is filled with what the company calls “traces of magic realism” which don’t add much. If anything, those moments detract from the story. Kevin Stillwell plays two characters, one of whom is referred to as The Jackal, and his presence alongside Dembe is initially confusing and eventually just clumsy. Sedonia Monet also plays two women, Liv/Olivia, who intersect with Reed, albeit less oddly than The Jackal.
It’s epic in scale and deals with themes such as political corruption, but narratively the play is disjointed. Patterson is capable of some crisp, effective dialogue, but many of his scenes ramble and lack purpose. The play doesn’t really seem to know how to end, either.
As directed by Amber Bradshaw, the show does have a tight cast. Nine actors bring 11 characters to life. Sonubi’s Dembe is a man who isn’t a typical one-note villain. He is firm in his convictions, etched from some childhood memories. Wellmaker’s Reed is also full of ambiguity, while Alex Van — a standout from this spring’s Wall Street Wedding at Pinch ’N’ Ouch — is particularly persuasive as Douglas, Reed’s manipulative father used to getting his way. Only Acker seems a little flat and unbelievable.
Bradshaw uses a screen midstage to project images and set the tone. For the most part, that concept works well enough. Snow is a major motif here.
That Uganda Play has its roots from last year’s Bare Essentials Reading Series — Essential’s open reading series of plays in development — and was further developed throughout Working Title Playwrights. It could benefit from some fine tuning and a more linear approach, however.
That Uganda Play runs in repertory with the Karla Jennings world premiere Ravens and Seagulls, the cowinner of Essential Theatre’s Playwriting Award (along with this play) opening this weekend. Essential Theatre routinely offers up provocative fare (last year’s Swimming With Jellyfish was a gem), but despite its well-meaning sentiments, That Uganda Play needs more discipline in its storytelling.