J.Stephen Brantley's new play Pirira has just been published on Indie Theater Now. I saw the second performance at the Chain Theatre, and I'm excited to share this work with our readers!
As far as I know, Pirira is the only American play that takes place in Malawi and has a Malawian man as one of its main characters. I'll wager that many (perhaps most) people who will go to see Pirira don't have a clear sense of where Malawi is; being a geography nut, I can locate it on a map but I still tend to think of it as one of those sub-Saharan countries on the right-hand side of Africa. Now, having met Gilbert, the young Malawian immigrant working in an NYC florist, and Jack and Ericka, two Americans working for an international nonprofit dedicated to building Malawi's very spare infrastructure--these are three of the four people who inhabit J.Stephen's incisive and heart-felt play--I feel more connected to this little-known country. That's what theater--art--can do.
So when I got home, I pulled out my World Almanac and did some exploration of Malawi on my own. Why should we care about this country? Well, it's about the size of New York State in terms of land area and population. But the conditions of life--as J.Stephen makes clear in his play--are as different from our own as anyplace on Earth. Malawi is one of the dozen poorest nations in the world (all of them are in Africa, by the way). The almanac tells us that the infant mortality rate is 79 per 1,000 live births; there are 3 radios per 1,000 people, 11 TV sets, 2 motor vehicles (the comparable numbers for the USA are 6, 145, 844, and 809). 11% of adult Malawians have HIV.
Malawi also, interestingly, has a large Christian majority (83% per the almanac). Pirira reflects a bit on that fact, a result of rabid missionary work from the time of Dr. Livingstone and his compatriot Brits who "civilized" this country a century and a half ago. What has colonization wrought? In Pirira we discover a place where homosexuality is criminalized and demonized as a sin; where kids dig up desperately needed pipes from the ground for mischief and for ready cash; where a revolution is underway (and a woman has just been elected president!), but a goat can be arrested by the police.
I've briefly introduced you to three of Pirira's four characters; the other one is a gay New Yorker named Chad who works with Gilbert in the florist shop. This is a play about connectedness, something J.Stephen and director Ari Laura Kreith viscerally demonstrate to us by having its two stories--one in NYC and one 7,000 miles away in a storage room in Malawi--play out simultaneously, on a single set, in real time. It's Chad, the only one who hasn't been to Malawi, who holds the firmest and most naive ideals about humanity's interrelatedess; he says:
Gilbert? I had this idea. This crazy fucked up idea that if people cared about- If I could make people care about people whose lives were different from their own- I mean, you hear guys say, ‘if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will? Gotta look after number one.’ But I’m like No, no, that’s completely wrong, it’s totally backwards! Because if we can care for people who are different from us, and then they can care for someone who is different from them… If someone like me, you know, self-centered gay failure fucktard like me can give two shits about kids in Africa…I don’t know.Please see Pirira, or read it, or both, because it will open your mind and heart, not just to the circumstances of people halfway around the world whose particular situations almost certainly don't find their way into our (American) field of awareness very much; but also to remember important ideas of our shared humanity and of our comfy self-righteousness and arrogance. Ericka, who is a person of color, makes Jack flinch when he hands her a patch used to repel mosquitoes that he says is "flesh-colored"; Gilbert actually entertains the notion, at least for a moment, that Chad is trying to turn him into a homosexual. For a shared hour, at least, actors and auditors at Pirira get to immerse themselves in the drama and beauty and folly of our fellows, as lovingly and smartly depicted by J.Stephen Brantley and his collaborators.
[Note: Pirira is being presented by Theatre 167 at the Chain Theatre in Long Island City through November 10; directed by Ari Laura Kreith, with Adrian Baidoo, J.Stephen Brantley, Todd Flaherty, Flor De Liz Perez. Details and ticket info here.]