In 2008, a 10-year-old girl named Nujood Ali pierced the darkness surrounding child marriage in Yemen when she defied her community's cultural mores, escaped from her abusive husband's family and sought—and ultimately received—a divorce in that country's courts.
In response, Yemen's parliament approved a bill establishing a minimum age of 17 for marriage in 2009. But after conservative lawmakers argued the statute violated their interpretation of Sharia, Islamic religious ordinances, the legislation never became law.
It's far too timely, then, that Playground, Jonathan Fitts' adaptation of Ali's tale, saw its world premiere last Thursday—two days before the Yemeni legislature was slated to take up the issue again. Unfortunately, this second production by The Distillery, a group dedicated to new and experimental works by regional playwrights, mainly proves that not all stage experiments are successful ones.
Fitts, an Appalachian State University senior, has already received notice this year with an earlier staged reading at Burning Coal, an award at this region's American College Theatre Festival and his improbably named—and critically drubbed—musical, Darfur: The Greatest Show on Earth!, produced at the Capital Fringe Festival.
Since this is not Mr. Fitts' first rodeo, and it's also at least the second time he's gleaned his subject matter from tales of mass atrocities reported in the news, we'll be frank. Under the guise of absurdism, Playground over-employs shrill histrionics at the edges of its story, while it keeps too convenient a distance from the physical realities at its center.
By simply inverting the ages of the characters, Fitts and director Kylie McCormick have all the adults onstage play children and most of the middle and high school kids in the cast play adults. The metaphor is obvious and too reductive: In a culture where adults "are behaving like children" (as the cliché goes), the child in this tale is forced to behave like an adult.
But that concept's short-lived charm abruptly ends when the only "acting" some of these kids ever engage in are full-scale temper tantrums that make a 55-minute play seem much longer. Besides, something monstrous goes misrepresented when the rapes and beatings Ali endured are thus reduced to "childish behavior."
With such day-for-night casting, puppetry and the presence of a sinister character representing the patriarchal society (a gratifying Jeff Aguiar), it's clear this production drinks deep at the fount of Brechtian alienation. Ultimately this seems a miscalculation as well. In presenting us with "foreign" characters who sound, act and look—minus the ridiculously fake beards—like American kids, we repeatedly find crude mirrors instead of windows into another culture.
But the script's alienation from its own central character is likely its most damning flaw. Ali speaks of rapes and beatings but never displays believable indications that they actually happened. Fitts and McCormick keep the physical reality of these events at too comfortable a distance, while rubbing our faces in the cheapest of tantrums instead. Rape is never dodgeball—the unwise, reductive metaphor utilized here.
When people recount their sexual violation on stage, but don't appear to have been violated, lip service is being given to an issue at the same time its physical reality is being denied. With all due respect, that's not absurdism. It's avoidance. It's also a disservice to—and perhaps an exploitation of—the original victims.