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A CurtainUp Review
Laws of Sympathy

By David Avery

Won't you please, won't you please, won't you please be my neighbor— Jaspora, while crying in front of the Mr. Rogers television program.
Laws of Sympathy
Will Dixon and Diarra Kilpatrick in Laws of Sympathy
I think one of the central themes in Oliver Mayer's Laws of Sympathy, premiering at the studio/stage theater, is point of view. I don't mean in a Rashomon kind of way, where the characters sees physical actions differently. I think the playwright is much more interested in the personal point of view — in other words, what makes us say and do the things we do.

The play depicts the trials of two Somali Bantu immigrants, Mother (Anita Dashiell) and her daughter Jaspora (Diarra Kilpatrick). They have recently been brought to the United States (to Atlanta of all places) by well-meaning social workers Mohammed (Ahmad Enani) and Betty (Celeste Den). Though they have their own apartment, it's implied it's not in the nicest neighborhood.

We meet them as they examine the apartment for the first time, obviously pleased but a bit overwhelmed by their change in circumstance. Jaspora is fascinated by the toilet, and as we learn about Mother and her story a repetitive flushing sound is heard in the background.

It's apparent from the beginning is that Betty is wholly uncomfortable with the two refugees, and that Mohammed is enamored of Jaspora. Betty comes off as something of an armchair liberal — it's all well and good to "save" two Somalis from the horrors of slavery, but sees no reason to baby-sit them? Mohammed seems to be more preoccupied with urban culture, as evidenced by his love of Homies ( gang-themed mini-dolls you buy from gumball machines — Google it).

Things are further complicated when ex-track star Gerald (Will Dixon) appears. He is also immediately struck by Jaspora, and begins laying the groundwork to include her in his schemes.

The strongest performances are turned in by Dasheill and Kilpatrick as the two refugees thrust into a world as strange as a jungle would be to city-dwellers. And this is where point of view begins to manifest itself. When the two Somalis converse with their social workers, they speak in heavily accented and clipped sentences. When they converse with each other, they express beautifully articulated ideas. The first time this happens, it's a bit shocking, forcing us to reconsider them as characters. It's like a soliloquy when it occurs.

"It's not bad being a slave," Mother at one point says matter-of-factly to Mohammed at one point, "but being free is better." He is, of course, stunned by the statement, but replies "I am not free." Again we have point of view coming into play. To Mother and Jaspora, slavery was a way of life. Moving to America was in essence a "promotion" of sorts, not a human-rights cause. We learn, quite explicitly, that in their old life Mother would pimp Jaspora and collect the money. Is this wrong, given their circumstances? I don't know, but as a white Westerner I'm not sure I'm in a position to judge. And that, I think, is what the playwright is aiming for.

We hold dear morals and scruples and points of view. Yet these things are not absolute. As Gerald slowly becomes more and more prominent in the refugees lives, Mohammed and Betty have to look beyond their expectations of the two Somalis and let them go where they want to as they journey into their new lives.

A strong sense of wry humor overlays some very poignant and interesting undercurrents. There are no bold statements or long speeches — it's a very matter-of-fact look at how circumstance and experience dictate action. If we're going to offer people the promise of the American dream, we can't very well get upset about the choices they make once they're here.

Laws of Sympathy is not without a few clunky moments. Gerald's clothing line is called "Slave" and he wants Jaspora to model for him (why not just call it "Commentary on the Fallacy of the American Dream" and be done with it?). Goth-girl Betty comes off a bit over the top in her attempt to be edgy, and her efforts to ingratiate herself with Gerald seem robotic. Barbara Lee Bragg has the thankless task of portraying several stereotypical southern characters. However, the intimate stage perfectly mirrors the tone of the play, and the sparse set with a rotating wall does a perfect job of conveying different locations. Laws of Sympathy makes us look at our own preconceptions and in doing so brings a larger perspective to some thorny issues.

Laws of Sympathy
By Oliver Mayer
Directed by Jon Lawrenece Rivera
Cast: Barbara Lee Bragg (Ida Lou, Glenna, Southern Lady), Anita Dashiell (Mother), Celeste Den (Betty), Will Dixon (Gerald), Ahmad Enani (Mohammed), Diarra Kilpatrick (Jaspora).
Set design: John H. Binkley
Costume designer: Mylette Nora
Lighting designer: Jeremy Pivnick
Sound designer: Dennis Yen
Stage Manager: Kim Patch
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes (included a 10 minute intermission)
Studio/Stage 520 N. Western Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90004
From 2/28/09 to 3/29/09
Friday through Saturday @ 8, Sundays @ 7.

Reviewed by David Avery on February 28, 2009
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