The latest Humana Festival offering, Hansol Jung’s “Cardboard Piano” is a meditation on blame, innocence, forgiveness and love. Set in a township in Northern Uganda and written by a South Korean playwright, it is also a mediation on Americans abroad created by an author with an outside perspective of our nation.
Chris (Briana Pozner) is the daughter of missionaries in Uganda, and she is gay. She has fallen for Adiel (Nike Kadri), who is also smitten, and the two have romantic late-night rendezvous in the church built by Chris’ missionary parents.
Pozner and Kadri are both adorable as lovestruck teenagers, and the idyllic 20 or so minutes they share in bliss at the beginning of the play are sweet, though their idyll is obviously doomed.
That doom arrives in stages, represented first by the arrival of Pika (Jamar Williams), an escaped child soldier. Williams creates a convincing portrait of a child thrust into violence at a young age. He makes strong choices physically and vocally, imbuing Pika with a twitchy energy and plaintive sing-song sound. Jung’s ear for rhythm and dialogue is particular strong in her work on Pika.
The second act occurs in the same church 15 years later, and it examines the trauma the survivors of the first act experienced and features a strong performance from Michael Luwoye as Paul, a preacher who has taken over the church once run by Chris’ parents. He is at turns charming and rageful as he explores his past and the prejudices it has left with him.
Director Leigh Silverman has gotten some wonderful work out of the entire ensemble, and scenic designer William Boles creates a set that is almost an art installation, with rusted metal and weathered plywood enveloping the entire Victor Jory Theatre.
The action is grounded in the personal but is looking hard at current events in Uganda, which has become increasingly hostile toward LGBTQ people. There is also a subtle but distinct nod to the role Christian missionaries have historically taken in propping up homophobia in Uganda.
It’s a delicate balance, and Jung walks the tightrope with skill and grace. The characters are well drawn and meaty, and their interpersonal conflict is engaging. But Jung leaves herself plenty of room for questions and accusations that reach far beyond the borders of Uganda.
One of the larger philosophical questions, almost an accusation really, is the interrogation of the forgiveness and love many Christians seek for themselves but refuse to grant to the LGBTQ population. This is one of the many themes presented by Jung that have a very American flavor, given the current political climate.
The PTSD experienced by soldiers is well on display here as well. While Paul and Pika were child soldiers, it’s easy to draw a connection to the plight of American veterans of recent wars, many of whom struggle with the same issues.
Another boundary-less examination is the aftermath of violence and trauma. So many plays are only interested in the things that lead up to an explosion. These plays abandon their characters as soon as the dying is done. “Cardboard Piano” sticks with its survivors to see marks on left on them by trauma and to wonder if their lives can still find meaning, or grace.
“Cardboard Piano” continues at Actors Theatre through April 10. For times and tickets, click here.