Play examines paradoxical mix of anger and affection
Published: August 15, 2012
Written by Kevin Kostic
Directed by Barry Feinstein
At LOF/T through Aug. 26
A synopsis of Kevin Kostic’s play Passport, now at the LOF/T, can give you the wrong idea. As soon as you hear that an American relief worker is trapped in a Kenyan hotel with two local women during that country’s 2007 postelection riots, you might reasonably fear that you are about to be subjected to a moral allegory about relations between the Third World and the First. You’ve already seen something similar in a dozen mediocre middlebrow movies where the white protagonist gets in touch with his feelings and the nonwhite sidekick gets in touch with Western ideals.
But Passport, part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, is better than that. When Jeff, the American, impulsively pulls two local women from threatening rioters in the streets of Kenya’s western port city, Kisumu, the two sisters don’t thank him; in fact, they barely notice him. They simply continue the argument they were apparently having outside. Here is the first hint that Kostic’s African characters don’t exist only when an American sees them. They have full, complicated lives whether Jeff—or anyone in the audience—notices or not.
Nor are the women the saintly victims of so many Third World tales. Kioni (Ama Brown), the younger sister, has returned home from her job as a nurse’s assistant in Philadelphia to track down her older sister, Louisa (Mahoghany Ayot Eerised) and their three even younger sisters, recently orphaned. Kioni, a short, squat woman in a brown kerchief and embroidered gray skirt, isn’t willing to return to the family’s rural village to take care of the youngsters, but she argues that Louisa should. Louisa, a wiry figure in a wild wig and white T-shirt, is adamant that she won’t leave her married lover in town only to return to a village that once banished her for being immoral.
Jeff (Mike Ware on this night; Vic Cheswick on others) has got problems of his own. His marriage to history teacher Nancy (Claire Bowerman) is falling apart under the weight of his frequent absences, lack of job promotion, and growing debt. The play flips back and forth between their Washington, D.C., condo and the Kisumu hotel; in each room is a pair of people who love each other and resent each other in equal measure. Nancy may love her husband, but she can no more give in to what he wants than Louisa can give in to her beloved sister.
That paradoxical mix of affection and anger is difficult to capture onstage, but Kostic, director Barry Feinstein, and the cast pull it off. As Nancy, Bowerman is able to seductively snuggle up next to Jeff on the couch and, in the next moment, twitch her right leg in barely suppressed anger as she ticks off all the problems in their marriage. As Kioni, Brown is able to bite her lip at Louisa’s stubborn irrationality, holding back her own anger as she pleadingly presents the logic of her advice one more time.
When Jeff and Louisa are left alone in the Kisumu hotel, she pulls a shiny peach party dress from the abandoned luggage of a Westerner who has already fled. Louisa pulls it over her faded jeans and now-bloody T-shirt and struts around the room like a beauty contestant. She makes the American a barely veiled offer: she’ll be his mistress if he’ll take her to America and support her. Jeff is undeniably tempted—you can tell by the way his formerly flaccid features tense up. Louisa has already saved his life once; maybe she can do so again, even if it’s clear that she doesn’t love him.
Meanwhile, the riots go on in the streets outside the hotel. They are represented only by artist David Cunningham’s painting where a window should be and by the breathless reports of the three characters each time they return to the hotel room. Louisa is convinced that if Raila Odinga assumes the presidency, which he won at the polls but was denied by the old regime, her life will be better. Jeff is doubtful; he fears that one set of corrupt tribal leaders will merely be replaced by another. In fact, he’s not sure how much difference his life, spent trying to help Third World countries, has made. Nancy, however, declares that his trying is the one reason she still loves him, despite everything else.
In this interaction between public events and private relationships, as elsewhere, Kostic has achieved a fine ambivalence. His play is just a rewrite away from being a truly fine piece of work. He needs to pare some of the bald explanations and trust his audience more to figure things out, and he could sharpen some of the language, but his grasp of character psychology is impressive. The performances were impressive as well, despite the occasional tentativeness of understudy Ware and the confusing casting of Brown, the older actress, as Kioni, the younger sister.
Now that the Performance Workshop Theatre has expanded to 40 seats at its new Harford Road location, the LOF/T is the smallest theater in Baltimore. Located in the back of the Load of Fun Studios on North Avenue, this cozy venue set up 38 seats for this production, placed on an L-shaped riser around a bare floor filled with a few pieces of furniture. Feinstein’s Theatrical Mining Company takes advantage of these intimate quarters by having the characters speak in nonstagy, conversational tones, drawing us into relationships that provide no easy answers but illuminate how it’s possible to be so angry at someone you love.
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