There is no singular approach to life among the various cultures of our world. Our culture, steeped in modernism and science, tends to reject traditional beliefs in favor of cold, hard pragmatism. But traditional ethnic cultures, both abroad and here at home, sometimes rely on a sense of wonder and belief in powers beyond the ability of science–be they God or ancestors or spirits. When theses two cultures collide, things can get confusing.
There is no singular approach to life among the various cultures of our world.
Our culture, steeped in modernism and science, tends to reject traditional beliefs in favor of cold, hard pragmatism. But traditional ethnic cultures, both abroad and here at home, sometimes rely on a sense of wonder and belief in powers beyond the ability of science–be they God or ancestors or spirits.
When theses two cultures collide, things can get confusing.
Sojourn Theatre’s world premiere of Throwing Bones explores this conflict. The drama follows Westerners who find themselves in the world of South African traditional healers, or “sangomas.” One character, Agatha, is a grieving mother who found an unsent letter addressed to a sangoma among her deceased daughter’s things. The other, Dr. Gordon, is a representative of Doctors Without Borders. He’s in the country trying to help stave off the AIDS pandemic.
The two outsiders find themselves in contact with the traditional healers of the South African people. Dr. Gordon tolerates his patients’ use of the traditional healers alongside his own services, and even gives checkups to an HIV-infected sangoma friend, Noni. Agatha is a mother trying to work through her grief about the loss of her daughter, still holding on to the possibility that something might have been done to keep her child from dying.
Another outsider is white South African Cara, who goes to the sangoma Tata in hopes of relieving her symptoms, which do not seem to fit any medically recognized disease. Agatha also visits Tata, the sangoma her dead daughter’s letter was addressed to. The daughter, Kelly, appears in flashbacks and other forms during these scenes.
The story is told through a combination of monologue, African tribal dance, dramatic scenes and even the use of video and projection. Sojourn Theatre always stages their shows in authentic locations as opposed to traditional theater settings. Throwing Bones is no exception, being staged in the appropriately medical Concordia University Nursing Lab.
Creative use is made of the space by the ensemble of performers. Courtney Davis does a great job as the deceased daughter, Kelly, moving and acting with a lithe elusiveness fit for a spirit of the dead. Kimberly Howard brings humanity and pathos to her HIV-infected South African healer. Both are members of the ensemble that Sojourn utilizes in every one of their plays, and their experience shows.
One of the best performances is from newcomer and native South African Victor Mack. Director and Sojourn Theatre associate artist Maureen Towey met him at the African Film Festival and decided to bring him into the show. He brings a great authenticity, and humor, to his role as a rural South African healer. The night I attended, several Africans were also in attendance and laughed in recognition of many of his lines and gestures.
This is the first full staging of the play, which is presumably in a late stage of development. Some moments have tremendous emotional power, but move on so quickly that nothing really sinks in. A few monologues were laborious, and the character of Agatha in general was weak. It seemed the piece was meant to provoke thought, and those more interested in the cerebral side of theater may like it more. Though, if the company keeps adjusting the piece, they could end up with a work of great emotional heft as well.
One slight problem with the play is the same issue Americans, in general, have with relating to other cultures. There is the tendency to judge other cultures by our standards, especially the unfamiliar or even disturbing elements of traditional spiritual practices. Throwing Bones is for the most part balanced, but does not always accord such practices the respect they deserve.
Plays until April 14Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m.Concordia University Nursing Lab 2805 N.E. Liberty St. $10 for students and $15 for general admission