Tales of Sri Lanka, Nigeria

By Siegal, Nina | American Theatre, February 1995 | Go to article overview
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Tales of Sri Lanka, Nigeria

Siegal, Nina, American Theatre

Two committed writers focus on personal stories from troubled nations

A single white silk sheet is the only scenery to adorn Theater for the New City of New York's production of Voices from the Resplendent Island: Stories from Sri Lanka, a stark emblem of the war-torn island nation little known to most Americans. Playwright Toby Armour's tales fill up the rest of the space, revealing a complex and kaleidoscopic landscape in four personal vignettes.

Across town at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, where Onukaba's A. Ojo's Tower of Burden is being performed, the crumbling edifice of the title stands high against the backdrop of a Nigerian village to tell its tale of human ambition.

Internationally concerned writers and activists both, Armour and Ojo use personal narratives to unravel the complexities of everyday life in troubled locales unfamiliar to U.S. audiences.

"In this country, we only hear about Sri Lanka when someone gets blown up," says American-born Armour, "and so the picture is distorted. I'm not saying that there isn't violence there - of course there is." On the other hand, Armour notes, Sri Lanka has the second highest literacy rate in Asia after Japan, universal health care and an evolved democracy. She notes that it was a model success story of an ex-colonial nation after it achieved its independence from England.

The country has been split into embattled factions ever since 1956, when a nationalist prime minister declared Sinhalese the official state language and promoted Buddhism, provoking the Hindu- and Tamil-speaking minority to insurgency. A brutal civil war began in 1983, marked by terror, torture and a string of assassinations. The country reached a turning point this year as the United National Party, which had dominated Sri Lanka for 17 years, lost control of the government to the Socialist People's Alliance, and a presidential election seemed to indicate the potential for peace.

Sri Lanka's violent history bubbles up through Voices from the Resplendent Island, but Armour, a human rights activist and volunteer for Peace Brigades International, has more of an interest in the ways that individuals react in an anarchic society.

"I'm so focused on individuals and their personal stories," says Armour, "that I don't think of my writings as political, except that we're all swimming in a political sea."

The playwright first traveled to Sri Lanka in 1993 as a human rights observer; she recently returned from her second trip to the island nation, escorting election monitors to polling places. While there, says Armour, she regularly heard tales that offered dramatic inspiration, and she began to interweave these accounts with other observations and narratives. "When you're an escort or doing a community project or taking part in a demonstration," she explains, "there's an awful lot of waiting around, a lot of talking with the people who are your hosts. You get involved with them."

The first vignette in Voices, Suriya's Story, was adapted from the personal histories of people with whom Armour became very close: a three-year-old girl and her parents who are so frustrated by their child's slow development (she is mute and feeble, probably due to malnourishment) that they resort to dire measures. The compassionate and delicate story is related by one actor playing all the parts.

Two other one-acts are also derived from personal encounters. In Cadillac Cosmic Shirt, two young factory workers sneak out of their overcrowded dormitory for a walk and return to find the factory shut down. Sister and Her Best Boy portrays an activist nun who meets a former student of hers at a bus station; she discovers that he has become wealthy by taking a job from an international charity, Awake and Sing, that diverts money from the neediest and siphons it into the coffers of the charity's Sri Lankan administrators.

A tale of widows

The last piece of the evening, Pattini, takes its name from the female deity - revered by Hindus and Buddhists alike - who fell in love with a mortal and married him.

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