CAM Raleigh, Raleigh
The thought strikes me as I perch on a wooden crate inside a gray industrial shipping container outside of CAM Raleigh, awaiting the start of its co-production, with Burning Coal Theatre Company, of The Container: Theater itself is a conveyance that not only takes us to distant locales, but also brings other lives closer to our own.
British playwright Claire Bayley puts a twist or two on that proposition in her award-winning 2007 drama. Like David Edgar’s Pentecost, which Burning Coal has produced three times since 1998, The Container seeks to immerse us in the precarious situation of displaced people fleeing chaos, war, and persecution in countries stretching through Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
But unlike Edgar’s incisive drama, Bayley’s doesn’t place us in a fixed position like a refugee camp or a treaty negotiating table. Instead, we join two women from Somalia, two men from Turkey, and an Afghan woman in a shipping container as a Turkish truck driver attempts to smuggle them across Western Europe.
At least, that’s what this environmental theater piece attempts to do, though basic miscalculations in Matthew Adelson’s lighting and set design don’t permit us to suspend disbelief. Prominent theatrical lighting rigs at both ends of the container and a string of almost always-on light bulbs overhead ensure that we’re only momentarily in the dark, despite marketing claims to the contrary. Freshly painted walls and like-new flooring render the environment far too sanitized to be convincing. The Container’s design points to its own artifice instead of facilitating the content of the play.
A convincing environment might have helped a clearly talented quintet more believably excavate the extremes of hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and paranoia. Under Avis HatcherPuzzo’s direction, Lakeisha Coffey is magnetic as the indignant Fatima, a Somalian exile who bribed her way out of a refugee camp with a child named Asha (a heart-tugging Cheleen Sugar-Ducksworth). Darius Shafa’s initially venomous portrayal of Turkish Kurd Jemal segues into surprising nuances as challenges arise. Veteran actor Holden Hansen is clearly on the right track as the self-righteous, self-styled Afghan businessman, Ahmad. And Rimsha Afzal’s work as Mariam, an Afghan teacher on the run from the Taliban, most fully persuaded us that she was at the end of her rope.
But this clean, well-lighted place never strays far enough from the comfort zone to evoke the darkest, most disturbing realities of human smuggling, which makes The Container a theatrical pulled punch—a dramatic conveyance that only takes us partway down the road to empathy.
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.