Playwright: Charles Smith. At: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Ave. Tickets: $20-$75. Runs through: June 4
Our play's author is Charles Smith; its director is Chuck Smith. If you confuse these two names, you will probably find yourself addressing the wrong person. This illustrates the importance of names, long before the house lights signal the start of our fable.
More important than the names we assign others are the names we assign ourselves. Calling yourself by a name not your own will compel you to live the lie engendered by your theft of another's identity, and the more names you appropriate, the greater the number of lies incorporated into your daily existence. Who would shoulder the burden of such a responsibility unless their very survival hinged on just such deception?
The real-life quest of Shedrick Kennedy Yarkpai to reclaim his birth name propels this microcosmic saga beginning in West African tribal wars driving thousands of native citizens to flee the prospect of death, dismemberment and enslavement at the hands of partisan terrorists. Making the long trek between refugee camps in a labyrinth of post-colonial nations, accompanied by his uncle and cousins, Shedrick finds himself increasingly forced to adopt the ages, kinships and names of family members lost or dead. Resettlement in the Australian sanctuary city of Adelaide delivers them from the horrors left behind, but 10 years are still not enough to banish the fear keeping exiles always prepared for flight.
Every immigrant ( and we are all immigrants in this country, however many years off the boat ) arrives with a secret past, often remaining undisclosed even to their closest relations. The question is whether falsehoods born of necessity can ever be discarded without bringing harm upon those privy to their origins. Shedrick's desire to forge a new life on his own terms engenders conflicts exposing the futility of separating fact from fiction.
The rain forest jungles of Liberia are unimaginable distances from our world, but Mike Tutaj's cartographic projections, Eva Breneman's dialect instruction and Jonathan L. Green's dramaturgical notes ( read your playbill before the show, okay? ) ensure that we never succumb to gratuitous exotification. Daniel Kyri conveys, with unaffected poignancy, the agony of our hero caught between gratitude and opportunity, as exemplified in Allen Gilmore's tradition-bound patriarch and Ryan Kitley's Aussie advocate, his indecision further complicated by the choices of his steely mother and reckless cousin, both rendered complex and fully formed personalities by Lily Mojekwu and Breon Arzell. Try as you might, you will not forget them.