by Ed Malin · November 15, 2015
Theatre 167 once again presents an intriguing, global and universal new work at the equally cosmopolitan Church of St. Paul & St. Andrew. Mourning Sun is written by Ethiopian-born Antu Yacob (who also plays Emaye) and directed by Ari Laura Kreith.
It is 2005 in a rural part of Ethiopia. Biftu (Arlene Chico-Lugo) is a happy teenager who, like her sister Mawardi (Fadoua Hanine) and friend Abdi (Kevis Hillocks), loves the music of Michael Jackson. Abdi has a DVD so they can practice the dance moves from “Smooth Criminal”. Still, at the young age of 14 Biftu is in an arranged marriage with an older man (who is 16). Biftu dutifully obeys and soon has a baby, which does not survive. Unfortunately, Biftu’s young body is damaged by the required sex with her husband, which started before menarche. She develops a fistula and cannot control her urination. Most of those around her do not understand her condition and even revile her, and her husband leaves her. By 2009, she has traveled to the capital to visit Dr. Wells (John P. Keller) for help with her condition. Happily, she encounters her friend Abdi, who had moved to America and is back on a visit. Abdi cares for Biftu, and marries her so he can bring her to America. Fortunately, Biftu has learned English (starting with Michael Jackson songs and a dictionary).
It would be simplistic to think that living in the USA with her medical issues under control would make everything all right for Biftu. While Abdi is benevolent, Biftu has yet to overcome her traumatic first marriage, and cannot gauge Abdi’s expectations for their relationship. Being constantly corrected on her English and disdained by Adbi’s lascivious classmate Kayleen (Fadoua Hanine) does not help, either. After quarreling with Abdi, Biftu spends the night with her neighbor, True (John P. Keller), discussing medical marijuana, obsessive behavior and the path to feeling in control of one’s life. Do Abdi and Biftu (whose name means “Sun”) still have a chance? They may if they can speak the same language, either the Amharic language that Abdi has almost forgotten, or perhaps something more metaphorically rich.
This was a long, beautiful show followed by a lively talkback session. Child marriage is shown to be devastating for all involved, yet is apparently on the rise in Ethiopia thanks to both traditional tribal and Islamic proponents. Biftu’s relatives, including Emaye, have their reasons for giving their daughter away, of course, and this is the story of one of many, one daughter who finds her voice and gets another chance. The tantalizing question here is, what is worth keeping from our (human) traditions? Biftu and Abdi, though they may thrill to “Thriller”, are shown to be more complete when they relate to each other through their past, present and future. Jessica Raye Court’s costumes are beautifully distinctive. Jen Price Fick’s set design is functional and makes the places we leave seem pleasantly transparent.