Within its first 30 minutes, Hansol Jung’s riveting drama hurtles from bliss to slaughter. We’re in Uganda, watching two 16-year-old girls celebrate their love with a giddily joyful “wedding” ceremony. Chris (Kearstyn Keller) is the white daughter of missionaries. Adiel (Adia Alli) is a black Ugandan. Their fears are telling: Chris frets her soul will go to hell. Adiel has more immediate concerns. Being a gay Ugandan, she points out to Chris, is punishable by life in prison. Before the couple’s sweet, celebratory wedding dance is over, it’s clear that prison isn’t the worst thing Ugandan gays have to fear. Their idyll is interrupted by violence, their romance ended by gunfire.
Directed by Mechelle Moe, Cardboard Piano succeeds on multiple fronts. It’s a riveting story. It’s a scathing take on religious hypocrisy. It is a harrowing glimpse into the life of Uganda’s child soldiers. It is a deft exploration of the inextricable connections between personal beliefs and sociopolitical systems. With each pivot in the intricate plot, Jung reveals a new perspective on both the individual characters and the lethal, institutionalized bigotry overpowering them.
The cast (which also includes Freedom Martin as Pika, a child soldier, and Kai A. Ealy as Paul, a Ugandan preacher) captures huge emotions without a featherweight of artifice. Among the high points: Pika’s monologue about how he’s learned to survive atrocities by perpetuating them. The passage seems to suck the oxygen from the room, leaving the audience to choke on the moral complexities of a stolen life.
TimeLine’s fathoms-deep dramaturgy (leave time to peruse Jared Bellot’s lobby displays) underlines the historical fact that in Uganda, the rise of homophobia and the incursion of Christian missionaries are inarguably connected. Jung offers a sliver of hope amid the brutal damage left in their wake. There’s beauty in the ethereal, haunting hymn that closes Cardboard Piano, and perhaps the distant prospect of healing. v