The Lost Boys of Sudan
The Lost Boys of Sudan Credit: Liz Lauren

The Lost Boys of Sudan Victory Gardens Theater

The second Sudanese civil war officially ended in 2005, after 22 years of brutal fighting had left about two million dead and twice that number displaced. Among the latter were the Lost Boys of Sudan, child refugees who began pouring into relief camps in Ethiopia and Kenya in the late 1980s. The nickname, provided by Western aid workers, alluded to Peter Pan’s band of orphans—but these kids were a long way from Neverland.

Mostly members of the Dinka tribe, the Lost Boys came from the predominantly black, Christian and animist southern region of Sudan. Many of them were away from home, tending livestock, when militias backed by the Arab Islamic government based in the north attacked their villages. Returning to find their parents and siblings dead, they ran away, singly and in groups, trekking hundreds of miles toward refugee camps on the other side of Sudan’s eastern border. Thousands were just “little boys,” as Alephonsion Deng remembers in his memoir, They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky, cowritten with Benson Deng and Benjamin Ajak, “so messy, all chaos and cries filling the dark, fiercely lightless night.”

Many didn’t make it to the camps, falling prey to starvation, disease, and predators both animal and human. Among those who survived, 3,800 were eventually selected for resettlement in the U.S. In 2001, the lucky few, by then in their teens, began boarding planes for heartland destinations like Houston and Fargo.

Documentaries, articles, and books have taken on this story, for the most part offering straightforward recountings of the Lost Boys’ harrowing experiences. But playwright Lonnie Carter says he didn’t want to go the just-the-facts route, relying instead on theater’s heightened realism to express truths and depths of feeling that facts by themselves can’t convey. The result, The Lost Boys of Sudan, now onstage at Victory Gardens (a different version premiered in Minneapolis in 2007), is strongest in its first half, when it presents the Lost Boys’ ordeal as both deadly and dreamlike—a kaleidoscopic waking nightmare in which the unimaginable becomes concrete. After Carter gets his characters to America, however, the artifice starts to feel forced and inauthentic.

The play opens in “beauteous, tortured” Sudan, a phantasmagoria of violence peopled by guerrillas, militiamen, poachers, drugged child soldiers, and—caught in everybody’s crosshairs—the pastoral Dinka people. Carter focuses on three Dinka children: A.I. Josh (Namir Smallwood), who has fond memories of sleeping beside his beloved pet cow Ayoun (a stoic talking bovine played by Nambi E. Kelley); T-Mac Sam (Samuel G. Roberson Jr.), high-strung and basketball-obsessed; and K-Gar Ollie (Leslie Ann Sheppard), a girl disguised as a boy because, as her mother tells her shortly before getting raped and killed by marauding thugs, being a girl “is enough to destroy you.”

The three meet up in the bush and decide to make the long trek to the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya together. But they encounter a steady parade of horrors. First, they barely escape soldiers trying to force them to work in the country’s oil fields (“Pump away, gasoline!” the men sing to the tune of “Look away, Dixieland”). Then they nearly go mad from hunger, chanting endlessly about lentils, onions, and rice as they troop along toward the border. They cross a crocodile-infested river and watch other children get picked off by lions, guerrillas, and despair before they finally arrive at the camp—exhausted, as a relief worker puts it, “out of their skulls.”

Director Jim Corti manages to suggest all of this on a bare set, using only some projections, a drum, brisk pacing, choreographed movement, and versatile ensemble work from a cast of eight who create the illusion of much greater numbers by seamlessly slipping into multiple roles. Corti’s no-fuss approach allows Carter’s verbal pyrotechnics to provide the majority of the play’s effects. Employing a heightened poetic language that includes chanting, rhymed couplets, and evocative wordplay, Carter evokes both the elemental gravity and the bizarre unreality of the events he describes.

The unreal quality grows more pronounced in the limbo-like refugee camp, as Josh, Ollie, and Sam prepare for their new lives in Fargo—or, as they call it, “Go Far.” Camp workers don’t have much to tell them about their destination, other than to warn them against baggy clothes and Skittles and to assure them, in a phrase that becomes one of the trio’s chants, “America is a land where they can’t just come and kill you.”

Set entirely in Fargo, the second act follows the kids’ bewildering process of adjusting to subzero temperatures, American slang, canned food, and the overwhelming importance of making money. “Who is this? What is this? Why am I here?” the Africans say. “What are we part of now?”

Carter sees the pathos in their predicament, but also the humor. In fact, he sees a little too much humor: before long, the play becomes little more than a fish-out-of-water comedy.

A Fargo family takes the refugees under its wing, helping them enroll in high school, signing them up for extracurricular activities, and providing endless opportunities for them to display their adorable naivete and shake their heads at our crazy American ways. Meanwhile, the singsong couplets grow more frequent, the flights of poetic fancy get more indulgent, and stakes diminish with every passing second. By the time a character went off on a Gil Scott-Heron-esque rant (“The revo will not be TiVo’d”), I was wishing that the show had ended with Josh, Sam, and Ollie getting on the plane.

There remain some affecting moments addressing the Lost Boys’ loneliness and feelings of displacement. Inspired by Hamlet, Ollie riffs, “My skin of solemn black, my inky cloak—/ What do you make of me, you Fargo folk?” Later, when Ollie speaks of going back home, Josh says, “There is no back to go back to.” The sadness and uncertainty of these lines reflect the feelings of many relocated Lost Boys, who’ve voiced their disappointment with the educational and employment opportunities they’ve found in the States. But melancholy notes register only as blips in Carter’s otherwise jolly second act. His verbal gymnastics grow tiresome and phony, divorced from reality rather than reinforcing and heightening it—a far cry from the dazzling first half, in which poetic language comes to seem the only appropriate means of expressing inexpressible suffering.