Written by Hansol Jung
Directed by Tom Bruett
New Conservatory Theatre Center
A violent clap of thunder and lightning opens Hansol Jung’s Cardboard Piano, a harbinger of powerful upset and danger to come in the small Ugandan church that serves as the catalyst for themes of redemption, same sex love and the forced enlistment of child soldiers. Any one of these single issues could be sufficient, but Jung manages to interweave his themes into a coherent structure that can support the dramatic elements.
Its New Year’s Eve 1999 in a small missionary church in Northern Uganda. Dramaturgist Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko describes the set best: “Piercing the ceiling like a giant knife is a jagged cross the size, scope and weight of oppression Christianity has imposed upon Uganda (and the entire African continent). The cross is a metaphor for a foreign religion imposed upon a foreign land”. Set Designer Devin Kasper achieves the scared space of the poor church using colored scarves and multicolored flowers all dwarfed by the scale and ominous overhanging corroded metal cross.
Chris, the pastor’s daughter, and her lover Adiel are planning their wedding and escape as their lesbianism is banned and dangerous. It’s a sweet scene on reciting their vows that clearly illustrate the differences between the two women; Adiel, influenced heavily by Christian faith, is more traditional, Chris is rebelling from her parent’s faith, abandoning her faith as well as the stereotypes of husband and wife.
Into their secret ceremony enters Pika, a wounded child soldier, himself escaping the bonds of enforced commission in the rebel army. Guilty of unspoken atrocities, the women come to his aid and even contemplate taking him with them to safety. Chris, acting as a world court, absolves Pika of his past transgressions in an act of redemption, telling him her story of a cardboard piano her father rebuilds for her after she destroys it. When Pika sees the women embrace, the ugly face of religiously condemned homophobia results in a senseless act of murder, leaving Adiel dead.
Fast forward 15 years. Pastor Paul and his wife Ruth are running the small, almost abandoned church. Bad rumors of suicide and sin have plagued the space. The couple are hopeful of a rebirth and Paul practices his sermon about the Good Samaritan aiding a dying traveler. Chris has returned to bury the ashes of her recently deceased father, and unwittingly intrudes on a meeting between Paul and Francis, a homosexual youth being banished from the church for his sins. When Ruth starts to tell the same Good Samaritan story Chris told Pika, she puts two and two together and all hell breaks loose.
Pika is Paul, now a pastor holding onto his faith in his redemption while committing the same atrocity of intolerance as years before. Chris tells Ruth and Francis the true story of Pika. Francis happens to be Adiel’s cousin and now both he and Ruth now know the truth of Adiel’s murder. The truth is too powerful to comprehend but provides some measure of enlightenment to the ugliness of the situations.
The acting is fine throughout; Megan Timpane is strident and angry as Chris, Gabriella Momah sweet innocence as Adiel and horrified wife Ruth, Howard Johnson as the terrified first act Pika who is surrounded by ‘bad souls’ and condemned second act Francis, and Dane Troy as the vicious rebel commander and the second act’s conflicted Pastor Paul.
As an atheist, I was struck by Cardboard Piano’s astute observations on imposed religion and the warped hypocrisy it engenders. The atrocities committed in its name are screaming to us loud and clear right at this very moment as Christian evangelicals fund anti-LGBTQ hatred in Uganda. The message here, stated elegantly by Artistic Director Ed Decker, is that “the play is a starling reminder that we are living in a world where violence and faith continue to comingle as misguided moral arbiters of human nature”. It’s tough, but necessary theatre and kudos to NCTC for mounting this play at this time of turmoil.
Cardboard Piano continues through December 2nd, 2018 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Tickets are available at www.nctcsf.org or by calling (415) 861-8972.
Photos by Lois Tema