Review: Sister Africa (Genesis Theatrical Productions)

Melissa Nelson (left) as Miriam and Takesha Kizart (right) as Mama Jette. Photo by Ron Goldman

Show: Sister Africa

Company: Genesis Theatrical Productions

Venue: Athenaeum Theatre

“Sister Africa” written by Stephanie Liss and directed by Elayne LeTraunik is a play advertised as being about efforts to aid the women and children victimized during the Congo’s ongoing civil war by the Jewish World Watch. It’s a description that brings up mental images of the white savior narrative. The white savior narrative is a narrative in which an outsider, usually white, travels to a place, usually full of black or brown people, and rescues them from the horrors of their existence. It’s a prevalent narrative, that puts the lived experiences of the people being ‘saviored’ on the back burner often with a side helping of criticizing them for the savagery of their lives. The set, dominated by a pristine desk on one side, and a straw hut with a tin roof on the other does little to wash away those images. However, audience members who stick it out will learn the play is more of a loosely connected series of monologues framed by one woman’s journey to collect the stories of people surviving in the midst of a war’s horrors so she can share their stories with the larger world. The lived experiences of the Congolese are front and center.

Or more accurately, centered. The first third of the play is a series of monologues by Miriam (Melissa Nelson) the aid worker who conducts the interviews, based on both the author Stephanie Liss and Jewish World Watch co-founder Janice Kamener Reznik and by Rabbi (Jimmy Binns), Miriam’s Rabbi. They give the audience background into Miriam’s life as the child of two Holocaust survivors and into the Jewish World Watch and it’s mission to stop genocide worldwide to ground the play’s narrative in a Jewish tradition of justice work and what it means for a Jewish person to refuse to be complicit in mass atrocities, even when that complicity is only silence and consumption. The monologues would have been more effective if Nelson and Binns did not hold the emotional history at arm’s length. Nelson, in particular, was disappointingly disconnected from the text, which made her appear as a high schooler in a recitation contest and a trauma tourist by turns.

Takesha Kizart as Mama Jette. Photo by Ron Goldman.

The disconnect was made startlingly apparent when the first of the actor’s playing one of the Congolese characters arrived on stage, Takesha Kizart as Mama Jette, the sole survivor of her family after a night raid, a woman carrying the title “Mama” even after witnessing her children’s slaughter. Kizart, the true star of “Sister Africa”, breathed fresh life into a performance that already had the audience growing restless. She managed to capture the audience’s attention with the tilt of her chin and kept it for the rest of the play with her vast emotional range and stamina.

The other Congolese characters were played by Ahmed Brooks as Amani, the teacher running a rehabilitation center for child soldiers, and by Chris McClellan as Cesar, the pain-ridden child soldier. Ahmed tackled the job of giving both the history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from Belgian colony to now, while also managing to be a fully realized character with aplomb. While, McClellan as Cesar completely changed the feeling in the theater when he stepped on stage. A much quieter presence than either Kizart or Brooks, McClellan can gave a full monologue with the tug of his shirt and Cesar’s sorrow was immediately visible and undercut with a seething anger that made it clear: to watch him, is to watch a bomb waiting to explode.

Jimmy Binns as The Rabbi. Photo by Ron Goldman.

As these characters, Mama Jette, Amani, and Cesar, tell their stories, questions are asked: What does it mean to be a responsible global citizen? How do women become worth so little to a group of people that rape becomes “big business”? What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a Congolese man, when every Congolese man featured carries a gun?

They are questions that need to be asked, and different characters offer varying levels of nuance that range from rhetorical condemnation to childish desperation, but at the end the questions are still left unanswered, leaving the audience to carry the questions home, along with a mother’s grief.

Ten Word Summary: Hundreds of hours of interviews about atrocities in one play.

Dice Rating: d10 – “Worth Going To”