After watching the first minutes of Butterflies of Uganda, I realized that its story of African child soldiers wasn’t set in Darfur or Rwanda — where, despite the play’s title, I had assumed it might be. Instead, Darin Dahms and Soenke C. Weiss’ drama, now running at the Greenway Court Theater, really does take place in Uganda, the land of Idi Amin, Lake Victoria and 400 species of butterflies — but not a country that Katie Couric or Brian Williams talks much about on network news.
“Let me tell you a story,” a lone high school girl tells us. “I was conceived in rape.” So begins the play as Mercy (Nana Kagga-Hill) recounts how the identity of her missing father was revealed by her mother, Mary (Alvina Carroll), who lies dying of AIDS. Seventeen years ago, Mary, then 12, was living a fairly contented life in Uganda with her extended family — though, to borrow from Coleridge, they heard, from far, ancestral voices prophesying war. Or at least they heard voices on the BBC warning of hostilities between Uganda and its northern neighbor, Sudan. Almost immediately, Mary — whose role is now assumed by Kagga-Hill’s Mercy — and her family are abducted by members of the infamous Lord’s Resistance Army, the guerrilla army of Acholiland fanatics led by Joseph Kony (Anthony Salas).
The Khmer Rouge–like LRA’s random acts of cruelty that are shown here have been well documented. Writing in Christianity Today last year, J. Carter Johnson gave readers a flavor of the LRA’s tactics: “Under threat of death, LRA child soldiers attack villages, shooting and cutting off people’s lips, ears, hands, feet, or breasts, at times force-feeding the severed body parts to victims’ families. Some cut open the bellies of pregnant women and tear their babies out.”
We meet Mr. Kony on Page 2 of Dahms and Weiss’ script. Kony is the millennialist madman who for 20 years now has sought to impose his own eccentric blend of Christianity and Acholi witchcraft on northern Uganda. A man given to apocalyptic visions and belief in his divine anointment, Kony formulated a personal interpretation of the Ten Commandments that sanctions the kidnapping of thousands of boys and girls to make them soldiers in his locust army of pillage and rape. Mary quickly receives her LRA baptism when she is commanded to behead her father (Kem Saunders). It is an act that she later believes has doomed her — not with AIDS, but with the curse of unforgiving spirits.
There are plenty of atrocities enacted — or rather, mercifully pantomimed — under Dahms’ capable direction, but the evening is not an artistic petition against Kony or his shadowy Islamist backers, or even against the slumbering world that tolerates them all. Instead, the play is very much a tragic microcosm — the story of a family, not unlike Anne Frank’s, that is caught at the fulcrum of historical upheaval. Unlike the Franks, however, Mary and her family are force-marched from their country to southern Sudan. Elliptically and episodically, Butterflies shifts back and forth between the training (torture and killing techniques) of Mary and her brainwashed brother Patrick (Charles Michael) to a “safe” refugee camp. Their journey includes meeting Kony and his more pragmatic lieutenant, Victor (Saunders).
The playwrights wisely avoid delving into the war’s origins; not only would they risk losing audiences but also inevitably tilt their point of view toward one side of a complex civil war with no good guys — only thousands of civilian victims. Still, their feelings toward Kony are clear, as when they have him childishly order Victor, who is moving miniature army tanks and trucks across a tabletop battle map, to “make the noises, make the noises” associated with the machinery. (The real-life Kony reportedly does play with toy soldiers and assures his troops that special holy oils make them impervious to bullets.)
“I will kill no people,” Kony and his followers repeat. “I will kill only bad people.” This contradictory mantra explains Kony’s schizophrenic behavior while describing the self-righteousness of our violent times. The women in this show are stoic, doomed figures, except Salome (Kenyetta Lethridge), the effervescent girl soldier who risks her life to rescue the faltering Mercy.
Dahms directs the work as a presentational fable. A large image of the sun dominates upstage center, while giant AK-47 cutouts are stacked on either side of the stage. (James Eric and Victoria Bellocq’s spare scenic design is augmented by Cricket Myers’ very crisp sound and Fritz Davis’ dusky lighting design.)
Butterflies’ ensemble is tight and empathetic to the material in a way not often seen in plays about current events. Salas particularly shines as the dreadlocked Kony, a mystic with a reflexive, almost wistful appreciation of mayhem, yet also capable of being reduced to tears upon hearing Mercy tell a fairy tale about butterflies.
In some ways this play functions as a prequel companion to Sonja Linden’s two-hander, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady From Rwanda. Linden’s play, seen last year at Burbank’s Colony Theater, was about a refugee from that country finding her writer’s voice in Britain — where Mercy is also headed, thanks to a scholarship. Both plays were insightful glimpses into the lives of traumatized women, written by white playwrights who, nevertheless, had been told of atrocities by people who witnessed them firsthand.
This production, however, is unnecessarily long, and sometimes the African accents, while authentically coached by Verilyn Jones, become a little difficult to understood, at least from the farthest seats.
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I may not have been alone in thinking that Butterflies would confine itself to one of those two or three African hot spots that our TV news shows report about instead of Uganda. Probably like most Westerners, I subconsciously believe every African genocide or demographic disaster has something to do with the fighting among Somali warlords or between Hutu and Tutsi, or between the Janjaweed and west Sudanese farmers.
“Subconsciously” is the key word, because Africa hasn’t impinged upon our waking thoughts much since the great famine reliefs of the 1980s. Instead, to us Africa has devolved into a kind of continental Skid Row, or, more specifically, it has become a continent of homeless nations.
There was a time when Westerners thought we understood Africa, but that was only because its insurgent movements spoke a Western language — Marxism — and we flattered ourselves into thinking the continent’s rivalries neatly mirrored the Cold War’s to the north. Then the socialist strongmen were replaced by the incomprehensible tyrants — the Amins, Bokassas and Konys. Butterfliesof Uganda is a vivid reminder of how Africa’s misery stretches from coast to coast, and how little we know of it.
BUTTERFLIES OF UGANDA | Written by DARIN DAHMS and SOENKE C. WEISS | At GREENWAY COURT THEATER, 544 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. | Through October 13 | (323) 655-7679