This Play Was Inspired By A Real Refugee's Shakespearean Dilemma
Objects in the Mirror, a new play from American playwright Charles Smith, seems ripped from the headlines. It's about a young man who escapes war-torn Liberia only to confront new dangers and an identity crisis in Australia, the country where he found shelter.
The play is based on the true story of a young actor named Shedrick Yarkpai. Smith met Yarkpai when a theater company in Adelaide, Australia, produced two of Smith's plays with Yarkpai in the lead. The playwright traveled to see the productions, and afterwards went to lunch with Yarkpai and the theater's artistic director.
At that lunch, Yarkpai told Smith about his escape from Liberia and the crushing questions he still faced. "I was just blown away," Smith says. "I said to him, 'I would like to write this.' ... I think he cried, and I cried. And we took off from there."
Smith's play is about the dangers of both revealing and concealing your identity. In the first act, the character Shedrick tells a sympathetic lawyer friend about his harrowing escape and the baggage that weighs him down: the fact that he came to Australia under someone else's name, a cousin who died in the war.
"I lied to the government," Shedrick says in the play, "and that makes me a criminal. And every day I lie, I sink deeper and deeper. And now I am drowning."
The lawyer offers to help Shedrick correct the record, but Shedrick's Uncle John has grave concerns. He risked his own life and orchestrated multiple lies to get the family out. He reminds Shedrick, whom he carefully addresses by his assumed name, that he can't leave behind the social reality of race: "You think the danger is behind us, that it's in the past, but it's not that far behind us, Zaza. The objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. ... You will always be only one of two things in the world: either a commodity or a liability."
Uncle John flat out forbids Shedrick to move forward with reclaiming his given name. Playwright Charles Smith says Yarkpai's account of this exchange is what sparked Objects in the Mirror. "According to Shedrick, he said flat out, 'Absolutely not. You will not do this. You will obey me. I saved your life.' And in my head, I heard Shedrick's response, and the response was: 'Well, what good is my life without me?' And I thought this is just an incredible decision. It's a Shakespearean decision."
It's been eight years since Smith first heard Yarkpai's story. His play premiered at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in April. The theater had hoped to bring Yarkpai to Chicago for the opening, but the actor says, "Traveling at this time to the United States is not as easy as it [once] was." While he was putting together his visa application, Yarkpai discovered that some documents from when he arrived in Australia still showed the name he had used to enter.
In the end, it was Rob Croser, the artistic director of the Adelaide theater company, who traveled to Chicago for the premiere. Croser says, "I found it one of the most emotional experiences that I've undergone in a long, long time."
He saw a version of himself onstage as the lawyer who helps Shedrick straighten out his identity. It's a role Croser also played in real life: He earned his living as a lawyer, running the theater in his spare time.
But Objects in the Mirror complicates Croser's role. In act two, Shedrick's Uncle John accuses the lawyer of trying to steal the young man he calls his son. "Your white skin and your governmental position does not give you the right to take a man's son away simply because you believe you can give him a better life," Uncle John says. On opening night, some people in the audience applauded that speech.
"I found that quite confronting," Croser says.
Playwright Charles Smith says that moment of discomfort was intentional. "Shakespeare wrote a play and there was a speech, 'to be or not to be'; I think that, you know, that scene is a 'to be or not to be' scene. And if we knew whether or not we should be or not be and it was an easy choice, then, you know, there's nothing for us to do. We might as well go home. We continue to watch because we said, 'Boy, this is difficult.' "
And you don't have to be a Danish prince or a Liberian refugee for that difficulty to hit home.