Review: SIA

by Lynn on March 30, 2012

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Factory Studio Theatre until April 15. Written by Matthew Mackenzie. Directed by Nina Lee Aquino. Designed by Lindsay Anne-Black. Lighting by Michelle Ramsay. Sound by Reza Jacobs. Starring: Jajube Mandiella, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett and Thomas Olajide.

Produced by Cahoots Theatre.

Nick is a young Canadian, full of noble intentions to save the world. He decides to go to Ghana to work in one of the refugee camps. He is befriended by Saa who saves him from a scam artist who is about coerce him out of a lot of money. Saa and Nick bond. Just before Nick is to return home, Saa and he go for a boozy good-by evening, which ends with Saa tying up Nick to a chair. Saa is going to use Nick as a pawn in the on-going war between Liberia and Ghana. Saa had been a child soldier in the conflict and was now trying to make amends by doing right for his country.

The play is divided between scenes in which Saa is Nick’s ruthless captor and intends to use Nick no matter how brutally for his own ends; and scenes with Saa’s younger sister, Sia. Here he is playful, sweet, patient and disarming.

Matthew Mackenzie’s play is certainly well-meaning in trying to illuminate the terrible goings on in refugee camps in Ghana and to show the atrocities in Liberia. I just wished he was clearer in establishing that the two countries were at war; that many Liberians were in refugee camps in Ghana because they were fleeing their brutal country. But more than well-meaning, the play is suffused with a smothering sense of naivety. Nick is so naïve in his noble wish to do good but is so unprepared for the rough world he will be going into. When Mackenzie himself went to Ghana to research the play and gather interviews, he admits he had not prepared himself at all either. Astonishing.

Mackenzie fills his play with horrific stories of torture that are based on fact. Coupled with this is Nick’s naïve behaviour—for example, falling for the scam of a man who needs medicine and has no money because his backpack was stolen. Such naivety might be accurate, but it does not make for good playwriting and in this case weakens the play. The play seems naïve and even clichéd, noble intentions notwithstanding.

It’s interesting to see Saa’s patient devotion to his younger sister; how he tolerates her stubbornness—a trait that will save her later. Next to that gentleness, Saa’s single-minded aggressiveness is startling.

Perhaps I might have missed much of the historical information if it was given at all, because the actors playing Saa and Nick yelled so much that what they said was lost. As Nick, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett has a disarming sweetness to him, and he’s almost like a baby he’s so naïve in this dangerous country. And when he’s pleading for his life, that’s when matters get fraught.

As Saa, Thomas Olajide is playful and protective of his young sister, but an angry warrior when dealing with Nick. Again, he bellows philosophy, history, political information and much of it is unintelligible.

As Sia, Jajube Mandiela is fresh-faced, stubborn and quietly fearless in her own way.

The play is directed by Nina Lee Aquino with a certain economy. For much of Saa’s dialogue to Nick, Aquino has him facing the audience. This gives what he’s saying a more weighty importance, which I can appreciate. It’s just that too often it feels as if the character is lecturing us.

The play SIA is a noble effort by playwright Matthew Mackenzie. Now he has to revisit it; figure out what story he wants to tell; and tell it without clearly, believably and with more rigour.

SIA plays at the Factory Studio Theatre until April 15.

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