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Transcendent ‘My Heart Is the Drum’ haunts with reality of AIDS crisis | REVIEW
As a theatergoer, it’s a pleasure to witness a new show’s world premiere, for no other reason than it has no history, no baggage to weigh down first impressions.
Pleasure turns to joy when said premiere is “My Heart Is the Drum,” currently playing at Issaquah’s Village Theatre. Written by Jennie Redling, with music by Phillip Palmer and lyrics by Stacey Luftig, the show last appeared in development atVillage’s Festival of New Musicals. Now it’s returned as a full production directed by Schele Williams.
Simply put, “Heart” is good.
Actually, scratch that. Plenty of Village’s premieres have been good; “Heart” is damn near transcendent.
Based in Redling’s and Palmer’s experiences as a rape crisis counselor and a volunteer in an AIDS counseling center,respectively, “Heart” is set in Ghana, the “Gateway to Africa,” in the year 2000. Protagonist Efua Kuti (Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako) is a sharply intelligent teenager who dreams of leaving her home village of Kafrona to attend university in the capital city of Accra.
But a crisis in the cotton market forces her parents to take her out of school at a critical college application deadline to help on the farm. She rebels and her father Sakuro (Jarvis Antonio Green) responds by arranging her marriage to farmhandEdward Adu (Jon-Michael Reese).
Efua has feelings for Edward, but bolts for the big city when her cousin Balinda (Joell Weil) is called to meet her own husband-to-be. The consequences of that decision prove to be dire when they’re entrapped by a sex slavery ring and sold as virginal “cures” to wealthy men afflicted with HIV.
Nako plays Efua with all the best parts of the put-upon Lisa Simpson archetype. She’s smart and she knows it. She speaks her mind. She also has a bad habit of looking down her nose at the people around her.
Efua is a character who could easily come off as two-dimensionally bratty, but under Nako’s care she comes across as relatably sad — isolated by her intelligence but alienated by her arrogance. It’s frustrating to watch as she repeatedly tries and fails to communicate with the people around her. It’s heartbreaking to watch her beg her grandmother’s grave to “teach [her] to want nothing more than breathing.”
Green is a standout performer as Sakuro. Efua’s father simmers with quiet anger — anger over his once-prosperous farm’s turn of fate, anger over his brother-in-law’s better fortunes, anger over his daughter’s refusal to respect his place as man of the house. His toxic masculinity demands that he lash out at those closest to him but, like a true rage-aholic, he recoils at himself when he realizes he’s left a mark. Green handles this interplay of pride and regret deftly.
Lauren Du Pree is a surprise standout as Kanika, the “bottom girl” in the bordello enslaving Efua and Balinda. Du Pree has relatively little time on stage but performs what is easily the most powerful and mournful entry in the show’s song list, “NoControl.” As Efua’s guide into hell, Du Pree plays Kanika as hardened yet deeply empathetic.
“Heart” plumbs dark depths but often seems dominated by emotional highs. The difference is stark and well-described by a poster used as set dressing in one of the show’s city scenes:
“Be happy, but think about AIDS.”
It’s to Redling’s credit that her script never devolves into melodrama. If anything, it’s understated. Every plot “twist” is hard-earned by the reality of the setting. Though it becomes integral to the plot, the AIDS epidemic spends most of its time as a specter silently stalking the characters from hidden corners in their everyday lives. The show’s conflicts aren’t acute; they’re mounting tensions that refuse to ease up.
Clearest among these is the everyday tension of being a woman. Late in the first act, there’s a scene in which Edward tells Efua how much he loves her and how he wants to keep her with him in their village forever. This is a moment that is absolutely meant to be sweet. Juxtaposed against Efua’s desire to see the world beyond Kafrona, it’s also a moment of despair. Even in their best moments, the men in this story approach women with a profound sense of entitlement.
The idea that a woman should have agency is hardly considered. If the window for a woman to direct her own destiny opens at all, it is open for only a short time. The theme is best addressed in the song “Girls” and its reprise.
In fact, all of “Heart’s” emotional peaks and valleys are best addressed in song. If the show achieves wider success (and it really, really deserves to) at least four songs should find their way onto high school drama geeks’ playlists: The titular “YourHeart Is the Drum,” the aforementioned “No Control,” “What’s Possible” and “Always Together.”
The takeaway from this review is simple: Just see it.
It doesn’t matter if you’re a hardcore theater buff, a dabbler or a newbie. Just see it.
It doesn’t matter if you think every conversation should be a Model UN conference or if you can’t find Ghana on a map. Just see it.
Just see it. You won’t regret it.