Theater Review

Some Beautiful Things

Book-It’s latest overcomes a lightweight adaptation

By Steve Wiecking May 1, 2009

Kamara and Platt find a fleeting friendship. (photo courtesy Erik Stuhaug)

It’s a tribute to director Jane Jones and her cast that Book-It’s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears works as well as it does. It’s touching and human enough to recommend even though it only skims the surface of something much deeper.

The problem with the show is playwright Kevin McKeon’s attempt at transferring the Dinaw Mengestu source material to the stage. McKeon, also a fine actor, succesfully adapted other works for Book-It—including a gentle rendering of Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons some years back—and, to his credit, he’s avoided at least one cringing disaster that could easily have happened here.

Mengestu’s complex, clear-eyed novel about an Ethiopian immigrant’s identity issues in his new D.C. life—and, as a side note, his would-be romance with a single white mother—is the kind of book Seattle loves to pat itself on the back for reading, as if the story were only about racial disharmony which (tsk tsk) is apparently a problem in other, less liberal cities (the book was, in fact, a 2008 choice of the city-wide Seattle Reads).

McKeon’s too smart to turn the tale into a smug humanities lesson, but the best he manages with the rest of it is a sort of “greatest hits” version of the novel’s events—which Jones and company turn into memorable melodies of everyday life in an ever-changing America. The weariness of Sepha Stephanos (Sylvester Foday Kamara) and his attempt to run a convenience store in a neighborhood on the verge of gentrification is palpable. So is his frustrated camaraderie with fellow ex-pats (Reginald Andre Jackson and Earl Alexander): There’s a slight sting in the moment when Sepha, feeling lost and a failure, catches the eye of his friend Joseph (Alexander) in the restaurant where the latter works as a waiter. Sepha’s excitement at building a relationship with Judith (Myra Platt) starts from a believable romantic tension, and his befriending of Judith’s biracial daughter Naomi (Olachi Anamelechi) has an ease that doesn’t get too cute too fast (although I’ve personally never met a kid excited about the idea of hearing Dostoyevsky read aloud—a novelist’s conceit if ever there was one).

All of the above plays exactly right but there’s so much going on we don’t have time to sink into it. The play goes from scene to scene to scene without settling in and stretching out.

But Jones’s staging gives what we do get immediacy and veracity. Her actors—there’s also a great supporting turn from Tracy Michelle Hughes as a woman who won’t take gentrification lying down—don’t make a false move. Platt plays Judith straight down the middle so we can’t write her off as simply naively privileged or selfish; she’s both of those things and more. And Kamara’s hopeful but heartbroken Sepha, I’m convinced, will remain one of the best performances I’ll see all year.

His quiet confusion best conveys what Mengestu is driving at: that being American means something more than fidelity to a flag—it involves an uneasy governing of the self.

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