In 1980, a couple years before Shedrick Yarkpai was born, a master sergeant named Samuel Doe led a coup against Liberian president William Tolbert Jr., executing Tolbert and his entire cabinet. In 1990 Doe was executed in his turn by forces under the command of Charles Taylor. Yarkpai was a child at that point, living with his mother in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. There followed a civil war that’s reported to have displaced a million people and killed anywhere from 200,000 to 600,000. (By comparison, it’s estimated that the Syrian civil war has so far killed about 400,000.) That lasted until 1997, when Yarkpai was a teenager. A second civil war began in 1999, ending in 2003 with the resignation of Taylor, who escaped into exile despite indictments against him for crimes against humanity.
By then Yarkpai had entered an exile of his own, though he’d hurt no one. A refugee, he passed through parts of West Africa no less dangerous than his homeland and spent four years in a Guinean camp he describes as “hell” before finally reaching Adelaide, Australia, on a humanitarian visa. He’s living there now, working, interestingly enough, as an actor.
That’s the real-life history behind Objects in the Mirror, getting a thoughtful, powerful and (thanks to the interplay of Riccardo Hernandez’s set with Mike Tutaj’s projections) visually elegant world premiere now under Chuck Smith‘s direction at Goodman Theatre. Former Chicago playwright Charles Smith recounts it all during a long expository first act, delivered in flashback by his stage version of Yarkpai (Daniel Kyri). But the play is more than the narrative of Yarkpai’s journey through hard times. Like another fact-based story about a third-world boy who finds sanctuary in Australia—Garth Davis’s 2016 movie Lion—Objects in the Mirror means to explore the psychic and moral costs of survival when it requires alienation not only from home but from one’s self.
As Smith shows us, circumstances required Yarkpai to travel under an assumed name—that of his cousin and friend, Zaza Workolo (a bluff, genial Breon Arzell), whose frustration with camp life led to rebellion and death. Yarkpai retains his Zaza alias in Australia, afraid that the deception will get him kicked back to Liberia if it’s exposed. Still, though his de facto father, Uncle John (Allen Gilmore), tells him the lie is a minor transgression, necessary to the whole family’s well-being, it preys on Yarkapi’s conscience with all the force of a concealed murder. Which is precisely what it represents to him: the murder of a part of himself, of a crucial connection to his past.
Shedrick/Zaza confides his false identity to Rob Mosher (Ryan Kitley), a middle-aged, white Australian lawyer who’s taken the young African under his wing. Looking into it, Mosher finds that there’s a simple, no-fault solution: a single form Zaza can sign to become Shedrick again. Uncle John won’t hear of it, though, and the second half of Objects in the Mirror turns into a struggle between Yarkpai’s two benefactors: the black one who brought him out of Liberia and the white one who can help bring him out of hiding in Adelaide.
Strangely, considering all that goes on in the first act, from war and leave-taking to risky border crossings and internments, this final struggle turns out to be the most absorbing passage in the play. Partly, of course, because it goes beyond incident to address the spiritual trauma Shedrick has suffered in order to survive in a world that’s apparently trying to kill him—but also and to a great extent because of Uncle John. Just as Satan famously has it all over God as the most vivid character in Paradise Lost, so Uncle John is the magnetic center of Objects in the Mirror. Though Kyri’s Shedrick is certainly endearing in his sweet diffidence, his quiet longing to be whole again, Gilmore’s Uncle John is a full-out iconic creation: equal parts Fagin and Merlin, with a genius for realpolitik that would put Macchiavelli to shame. Most of all, he’s a master of language, willing—as Mosher learns—to slip from blandishments to blackmail at a moment’s notice, able—as Shedrick discovers—to tell whatever story requires telling. It isn’t that Uncle John doesn’t love, it’s that he understands the discipline one needs to cope with an apocalypse.
Had he been born white in the first world, Uncle John might’ve been a Great Man; as it happens, he’s a black Mother Courage, using his skills to secure small victories in a context of major losses. Objects in the Mirror is his tragedy as much as anyone’s. v