Los Angeles Theater Review: A MISSIONARY POSITION (REDCAT in Los Angeles)

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by Tony Frankel on June 30, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles

LEARNING OF A DEATH PENALTY
FOR ONE’S EXISTENCE

Uganda has an alarming history when it comes to human rights violations, but recent developments against gay people are horrifying. In 2005, Ugandan police arrested a lesbian couple in their home, strip-searched and fondled them, and then released them without filing charges. In 2008, the couple won a High Court ruling which confirmed that their constitutional rights had been violated. The negative backlash from that decision resulted in a 2009 Anti-Homosexuality bill, one which criminalizes gay and lesbian existence with life imprisonment and the death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality.” The bill further states that those who do not turn in known offenders face up to three years in prison. American evangelicals, in cahoots with local politicians and clergy, also supported the bill.

Tony Frankel's Los Angeles review of A MISSIONARY POSITION at REDCATWhile the bill has been tabled for now, the anti-gay political climate in Uganda is gaining steam. The courts ruled against a tabloid newspaper for publishing the names of gay people under the headline “Hang Them,” but that didn’t stop one of the listed people from being murdered shortly after the decision. Even the prime minister has called homosexuality “unnatural” and has demanded that if gay people be found, “the homosexuals should be arrested and taken to relevant authorities.”

In 2011, Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, a first-generation American from Uganda, decided to document the homophobia first-hand. But what began as a filmmaker’s journey in Uganda culminated in A Missionary Position, Mwine’s solo show which opened for one weekend at REDCAT this week. The actor/writer/director/photographer whittled down 42 hours of footage and myriad interviews with Ugandans on both sides of the issue to present a multi-media theater piece in which Mwine portrays four residents: A Ugandan Policeman (satirically named Brigadier BigamAnus), a transgender sex worker, a gay minister, and lesbian activist Jacqueline Kasha.

Tony Frankel's Los Angeles review of A MISSIONARY POSITION at REDCAT

Mwine is a fine actor with an amiable quality, and his monologues are well-shaped with revelational information, but the show as a whole still hasn’t figured out what it wants to be. Mwine seems to be content enough gently delving out material with his characters. As a result, with the exception of the Policeman’s monologue, it isn’t his agreeable delivery that causes a reaction in the audience, but rather the jaw-dropping facts about the travesties in Uganda. The video and photos of Mwine’s travels are projected through a mesh screen (design by Carole Kim), so we can see that he is manifesting his true-life interviewees with startling accuracy, aided by Wamuhu Waweru’s hair and make-up design. However, unlike solo artist Anna Deavere Smith, who creates a remarkable facsimile of her interviewee’s essence, Mwine’s characters speak into a hand-held mike, moving from one side of the stage to the other without motivation, as if these were people who flew in from Uganda to lecture at a community college.

Tony Frankel's Los Angeles review of A MISSIONARY POSITION at REDCAT

By far, the most successful “character” is the first to appear, that of the Brigadier, who parodies himself by using what we assume are unintended sexual innuendos: words such as “penetrative” and “bend over” are interspersed as he tells us about his difficult job. How is he going to find and arrest homosexuals if he must catch them in the act? Bespectacled in dark sunglasses, he notes with crackling diction, “My job has been like a cock which only crows when it sees the light.”

Tony Frankel's Los Angeles review of A MISSIONARY POSITION at REDCAT

All four characters have an individual as a model, but the text is a composite of many interviewees. Mwine cleverly illuminates us about the hateful bill via parody with the Brigadier, but he appears to lean towards honoring the three beset-upon gay folk, and he seems therefore much more respectful to their plight. It’s possible that Mwine’s honorable agenda is getting in the way of creating impactful theater. While the stories are quite fascinating, the gracious and vulnerable actor’s vocal inflections are similar in the three gay characters, and they are far from riveting. The most impactful moment of the night came when the stunning actor transfigures from the cocoon of a policeman into the butterfly of a gorgeous male-to-female sex worker in her skin-tight dress.

Tony Frankel's Los Angeles review of A MISSIONARY POSITION at REDCAT

Neither journalism nor lecture, the event lacks a much-needed sense of urgency. If the evening’s intention is to be an awareness-raiser, then Mwine is headed in the right direction. However, A Missionary Position (co-directed by dramaturge Emily Hoffman) feels like a 90-minute public service message, when the subject matter begs to be agitation propaganda. Still, Mwine’s abundant talent and obvious knack for writing encourages a continuance on this work-in-progress. The most impressive element of the piece is its ability to convince the audience of the universal truth of human dignity and the importance of defiance in the face of adversity. It’s a heartbreaking revelation when one character caught up in Uganda’s maelstrom plaintively states, “I’m not quite sure what being African is anymore.”

photos by Steven Gunther and Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine

A Missionary Position
REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater)
631 West 2nd St (under Disney Hall)
ends on July 1, 2012
for tickets, call 213-972-8001 or visit REDCAT

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