Playwright: Lonnie Carter. At: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln . Phone: 773-871-3000; $20-$48. Runs through: April 25
Lonnie Carter's The Lost Boys of Sudan had its world premiere at Minneapolis' Children's Theatre Company, but this revised 2007 play is not just kid stuff. The targeted demographic of ages 14 and up also applies to adults who will appreciate the smarts and sophistication of Carter's lyrical drama in Victory Gardens Theater's polished Chicago premiere.
The Lost Boys of Sudan follows the journey of three orphaned teenagers from their civil war-torn homeland to Fargo, N.D. ( of all places ) . Instead of delving in the political and religious rivalries that have torn Sudan apart, Carter opts to focus on the frightened perspective of his fleeing protagonists.
Carter's heroesA.I. Josh ( a dignified Namir Smallwood ) , T-Mac Sam ( Samuel G. Roberson, who is great largely as comic relief ) and K-Gar Ollie ( Leslie Ann Sheppard, who brings a great spryness as a girl disguised as a boy ) all bond over the fact that they come from the same Dinka tribe. Dodging machete-wielding rebels and youth soldiers hopped up on methamphetamines, the three make their way to the refugee Camp Kakuma in Kenya. By Act II, the three teens land in the United States to start new lives.
Where criticism can be leveled at Carter's script is in his second act, which is all-too-rosy as his characters adjust amazingly well to American life. The culture clashes are humorously played up with lots of great hip-hop poetry, but little is made of any lingering emotional trauma and nary any bullying conflicts at their new school. No doubt American life would seem like a dream compared to the butchery of civil war, but the assimilation of these teenagers seems far too facile.
But as a play for young audiences and adults dealing with such a difficult humanitarian crisis, Carter artfully succeeds with his sharp, poetic script. The Lost Boys of Sudan also benefits enormously in director Jim Corti's vivid and fluid staging atop James Dardenne's spare scenery and beautifully rendered projections. Elements of African folklore ( Nambi E. Kelley as the ethereally narrating cow spirit Ayoun ) give way to the stylized depictions of the horrific atrocities in Sudan.
Members of the eight-member ensemble each get a moment to shine, particularly the actors who get to double as Sudanese and U.S. characters. ( Elizabeth Flauto's costumes contribute enormously to the delineations. ) Kenn E. Head particularly impresses as an African émigré who delivers a swinging show of slam poetry about U.S. politics that brings the house down.
So don't let the teenage-targeted origins of The Lost Boys of Sudan prevent you from seeing it. Carter's drama goes beyond news sound bites and succeeds at creating empathy and understanding in telling the stories of displaced Sudanese war survivors.