Currently playing at the ATB Financial Arts Barns’ black-box theatre space PCL Studio Theatre is Pyretic Productions’ Sia, by Matthew Mackenzie. There are about 50 seats arranged in two rows along one long side of the room, and the set visible before the play started included a piece of broken concrete-block wall, some debris, and steps up to a platform covered with some malevolently-twisted welded tube and old metal chairs, formed into shapes suggesting a large tree and some roots or vines. Program notes mentioned a refugee camp in Ghana, Liberian child soldiers, and the Butcher of Liberia’s conviction for multiple war crimes, so I worried for a few minutes that I might find the portrayal too disturbing sitting in the front row. But I didn’t, quite.
The lights then dimmed and I was swept away into the story, starting as Makambe K Simamba, playing a young girl (I first guessed her age between 9 and 15 but she later said she was eleven), recited a folktale about birds arguing over a mango and the snake advisor who betrays them. In the next scene, we saw two young men staggering home together from a party. The white Canadian student Nick Summers (Patrick Lundeen) was very drunk, and his friend Abraham, a black Liberian from the refugee camp where Nick has been volunteering (Thomas Olajide, who played the same part at Factory Theatre in Toronto last year) was helping him home and washing off the magic-marker tattoos he’s been covered with at his departure/birthday party. We saw quickly that Abraham was sober and had some kind of plan that Nick didn’t know about, and even though they seemed to be friends, this was worrying. I wasn’t even surprised when Abraham snapped handcuffs onto his half-conscious friend, and then video-recorded him as must be de rigeur for abductors.
Scenes then alternate between the interactions of Nick and Abraham, and interactions between Abraham and Simamba’s character, his well-loved precocious younger sister who is practising what she will say in a presentation she’ll give to some UN peace monitors expected in their village. She tries out the Liberian Declaration of Independence, the symbolism of a Christian communion service, and a story about Poseidon and Atlantis, while her older brother encourages and teases and critiques her.
Abraham goads Nick about being a typical Canadian refugee-camp tourist, coming to “observe”, and this seems to be a fair accusation. His attempt to do yoga sun salutations while chained up is classic. His later behaviour under the influence is particularly amusing, and slightly reminiscent of the last character I’d seen Patrick Lundeen play, the “mildly retarded but it’s just fetal alcohol syndrome, I’m not stupid, eh?” character in Kill Me Now. I was also reminded of the naive missionaries of last year’s U of A Studio Theatre production The Missionary Position, and the jarring disconnect between their Canadian confidence and the setting they didn’t know they didn’t understand.
It all gradually makes sense, and has a sort of hopeful ending, but not without living through and reliving some horrible events consistent with the bigger story of that place and time. Thomas Olajide’s character is the most developed and complex. His smooth shifts back and forth between the young patriot teasing his sister and the tormented man using his friend in order to get something he needs desperately made me like and feel sorry for his character.
Sia is playing until Sunday, with tickets available through the Fringe box office. It’s not for the squeamish or easily upset, but it’s a good story. I’m glad I saw it.