In “Cardboard Piano,” Artistry Lies Within

By Ernest Kearney  —  In my opinion, Long Beach’s International City Theatre artistic director, caryn desai has a genius for selecting and staging plays that are fail-safe, in so far as proving fully satisfying experiences for her devoted subscription holders; retirees who probably still have LP collections and have been complaining about the price they pay at the pump since gas was seventy-five cents per gallon.

Catering to such a group is not as easy a task as you might think. It requires acute judgment and a committed attentiveness to the sensibilities and standards of those purchasing season tickets and in this desai is an ace.

The stage craft of her productions cannot be faulted, her casts are assured to be composed of solid talents, and her presentations always served with the elegance of the 30-course omakase menu at Urasawa.  Still, however skillful and professional the ICT staging’s can be, it’s not seared toro and sawara aji you’re being served, because the palate of audiences wouldn’t find such entrees appealing.  And so, in her efforts to accommodate those tastes, what is served is on par with a box of Cracker Jacks and an I.O.U. in place of the secret prize.

This, sadly, is an occupational hazard when one is after material that can best be described as “crowd-pleasing.”   Because “crowd-pleasers” have a tendency to be “safe,” and while “safe” can be thoroughly entertaining, it can also, on occasion, be—shall we describe it as— “excitement-lite?”

Cardboard Piano by Hansol Jung at first appeared to be one of these “problem” plays.  Not that it was a poorly written or badly crafted play; on the contrary, Jung has done everything required of a playwright in order to achieve a solid drama.

But it was a “by-the-numbers” play, and Jung kept within the lines. Perfectly.

The work opens in a church in war-torn Northern Uganda.  The year is 1999.  Chris (Allison Blaize), the teenage daughter of missionaries meets with her lesbian lover, Adiel (Dashawn “Dash” Barnes), before the altar.  Here they share oaths of love and enter into a marriage before the eyes of each other.  Chris proposes that they leave the country, and to facilitate this has taken the precaution of drugging her religious parents who have learned of Chris and Adiel’s sinful passion.

Before the two teenagers can follow any course of action, the village is overrun by rebels of Joseph Kony’s, Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA); one of the most ruthless of the armed forces participating in Uganda’s Civil War.

Pika (JoJo Nwoko), a thirteen-year-old impressed into Kony’s brutal band of brigands, breaks into the church in the process of fleeing from his commanding officer in the LRA (Demetrius Eugene Hodges).

Jojo Nwoko, Dashawn “Dash” Barnes, Allison Blaize and Demetrius Hodges (Photo by Tracey Roman / Courtesy of ICT)

The two teenage lovers try to help the young Pika but their attempt goes horribly awry.

This first act was as solid and safe a piece of writing as one will ever see.

The second act is set fifteen years later in the same church.  We find Paul, the Church’s new minister, and his wife (Ms. Barnes, double-cast) celebrating their first anniversary, when the mature Chris intrudes.  She has returned with her father’s ashes to mingle with the root soil of a tree that he wished to have planted on the ground of his old ministry, and though they had been estranged for many years, Chris has decided to honor that wish.

Playwright Hansol Jung (Photo Courtesy of International City Theatre)

Now there are revelations to follow, none that are in any way unexpected from the moment the light opens on the second act, but there is something different here.  I suppose you could say that Ms. Jung ‘s “author’s message” arrives on stage, and it arrives swinging.

It is a brutal and understated indictment of an individual’s failure as a human being, through which comes a much larger indictment of a far greater failure, that of Christianity.

That failure begins in the first act with Chris having to drug her parents so she can flee with her lover.

That failure continues in the fifteen years that separate the two acts in which Chris never found  acceptance by her Christian father.

That failure is echoed and amplified in the second act, where it allows a man to mask— from himself and others— his flaws as a human being and allows a continent to defend its abuse of others under the cloth of dogma.

Ms. Jung’s message in the second act is understated and surprising, and may be missed by most, but it is there.

The poet Emily Dickinson once advised, “Tell the truth, but tell it on a slant.”  Ms. Jung has certainly done that and, in doing so, has proven that even a paint-by-numbers portrait can display some dignity.

♦    ♦    ♦

    NOTE:  Featured Image of Dashawn “Dash” Barnes and, Allison Blaize — Photo by Tracey Roman / Courtesy of ICT

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An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at and Follow him on Facebook.

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