"Rebel Armies Deep Into Chad," the play that opened this week at the Round House Theatre, is the headline a once-eager young American journalist envisioned over a potential dispatch from Africa. At that point, he saw himself as a glamorous foreign correspondent, trekking in exotic places and writing elegant reports full of facts and truth.
But reality intrudes, as it has a habit of doing, and he comes painfully back to earth, escorted out of Uganda at the point of a gun and tormented by the knowledge that his "truth" may have caused innocent people to lose their lives. The play, written by a onetime newspaper stringer in East Africa and given a wonderfully sensitive production here, breathes new life into old cliches.
On the face of it, playwright Mark Lee's characters seem to be drawn from a familiar well -- Dove, the cynical older journalist, down on his luck and desperate for a good story to save his sagging career; Neal, the idealistic beginner, chastened by truths his superiors seem to ignore; Mary, the world-weary older whore, eager to please, get paid and go home; and Christina, the sad younger prostitute, trapped into a demeaning profession as a refugee without papers who can find no other way to feed herself. They all spend a stormy night together in Dove's shabby digs in Nairobi, right after Neal has been expelled from neighboring Uganda by the violent regime he had been trying to cover.
But Lee, and most especially the actors in this production, invest these hoary archetypes with fresh insights and textures, seeing anew confounding cultural differences, the chasm between the Western need to know and the reality of repression as it exists in other countries.
The situation is that Dove, once firmly planted on the Reuter news service's career track, is frantic to get Neal to file the story of his expulsion, and panicked that a competitor will scoop him on something -- he is not sure what -- that Neal is trying to hide. To loosen up his shellshocked and newly embittered colleague, Dove hires the two African prostitutes for an evening of drinking and sex. But the more we learn of Neal's story, the less likely it becomes that Dove will hold on to his job. It would be revealing too much of the plot, such as it is, to fully describe Neal's predicament; suffice it to say he discovers that what would be routine information in the United States -- a name, a place -- is a death sentence in Uganda.
There is more talk than action in this play, although the verbal wrestling bursts into the physical occasionally. A more significant weakness is that too much of the conflict is couched within the vocabulary of journalism. As attractive as the profession is to novelists, screenwriters and playwrights, who use journalists as handy carriers of plot information and cynical representatives of all that is wrong with popular culture, I'm not sure that it can usefully function as a metaphor for larger issues.
When Dove and Neal, for example, talk about the cruel truth that a bloody massacre in Uganda is less likely to make the front page in an American newspaper than the local flower show, they are merely describing a weird fact about newspapering. When they confront the idea that their reporting may have caused the deaths of their sources, it is not a question about the regime that fosters such heinousness, but rather a journalistic dilemma.
Lee is better at the small, telling details that make an atmosphere and describe another culture. Neal has been undone by his six months in a country where people think he has the power to save their lives, where he encountered a pig eating the flesh of a dead man left on the side of the road, and heard the screams of a guerrilla being beaten to death. Instead of the cops-and-school-board routine he would be covering at a home town paper, he is dealing every day with "life and death" -- although he rarely can get any of his dispatches into print.
Set designer Jane Williams Flank has created a home for Dove that would look familiar to anyone who has lived in East Africa, complete with mildewed blinds and loud fabric that looks like rejects from England. He keeps guns at the ready for "nastiness in the night," stows his unlimited quantities of beer in an ancient derelict of a fridge and is on first-name terms with the telephone operator.
The performers are so well married to their parts that it's hard to decide whether to applaud the director, Mary Hall Surface, for excellent casting, or the actors for doing their jobs well. James Slaughter is the sardonic Englishman, ruined by his years in Africa, to which he was sent by his superiors for "seasoning." Beverly Cosham is the canny older hooker, sassy and practical. Oni Faida Lampley is a superb Christina, wobbling on her unaccustomed, cheap high heels, trying hard to be a good slut but unable to hide her intelligence and her own hideous suffering at the hands of Ugandan cutthroats. And Ernie Meier has the perfect baby face for the ingenuous American reporter.
Rebel Armies Deep Into Chad, by Mark Lee. Directed by Mary Hall Surface. Set, Jane Williams Flank; lighting, Joseph B. Musumeci; costumes, Rosemary Pardee; sound, Neil McFadden; props, Kathleen Wolfrey; vocal consultant, Ralph Zito; fight consultant, Kevin Reese. With James Slaughter, Ernie Meier, Beverly Cosham and Oni Faida Lampley. At the Round House Theatre in Silver Spring through Oct. 21.