South African writer and philosopher Adam Small's "The Orange Earth," now playing a two-week run at the Theatre Project, comes closer to poetry than drama.
Much of the language is lyrical, and the seven scenes have titles that sound like sections of a poem -- "White walls," "And there was joy," "In his image," etc.
Of course, poetry can be highly dramatic, and this tale of a political prisoner is definitely the stuff of high drama. But despite the fine directorial efforts of the playwright and co-director Del Hamilton, as well as an impressive performance by Steven Coulter in the lead role, "The Orange Earth" remains more literary than theatrical.
Subtitled, "Times in the Mind of Johnny Adams: Essential Elements of a Personal History," the play takes place in the mind of a colored (the South African government's classification for people of mixed race) prisoner accused of planting a bomb that killed a child in a supermarket.
Is he guilty? To Mr. Small's credit, he leaves that question unanswered. Instead, he focuses on the conditions that brought Johnny Adams to this point -- the pivotal elements in his upbringing, his marriage and his experiences as a parent.
Incidents from Johnny's past are presented during his testimony and in flashbacks. These episodes are peopled by actors playing his wife, father and white jailer.
Over and over again, Johnny goes back to the time when he was 5 and accompanied his Muslim mother to the home of a white family to get grain for Communion bread. The rest of his life has been informed by the humiliation he felt when his mother was sent to the back door. "That's how it starts," Johnny's wife testifies.
Produced by the Seven Stages company of Atlanta, the production utilizes three large wooden blocks as its entire set. But when Mr. Coulter holds forth in Johnny's quiet, reasoned tones, the stage seems far from empty. Describing a childhood memory of his father leading a church service for "the dusty brown workers of the white farms," the actor is so intense, he makes you see it, too.
Rick Rogers also is effective as Johnny's white guard and intellectual inferior, a weak, scared man the play uses -- too broadly -- to represent apartheid itself. As Johnny's speechifying wife, Kuumba Alisa Foster needs to be more self-assured. And as his father, a stroke victim, Bilal Farid comes across as not merely feeble, but inappropriately unconcerned.
The playwright, whose background bears several similarities to that of his fictitious protagonist, seems to be using Johnny's imprisonment as a microcosm for the horrors of apartheid. As the story of an individual, it is affecting. But it's too small a canvas to contain a representative picture of the turmoil of a whole nation.
"The Orange Earth" makes you think, but it's too spare and writerly to disturb you as much as this incendiary issue should.
'The Orange Earth'
When: Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m.; matinees Sundays at 3 p.m. Through Nov. 11.
Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.