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Here’s the short version: go see Will Snider’s Death of a Driver, now getting its regional premiere at InterAct. But stick with me, and I’ll give you five reasons I think you should see this production, running through November 20, 2022.
Akeem Davis in the role of Kennedy could be the whole list, and it still wouldn’t emphasize enough how powerful he is in this two-character production set in East Africa about a not-so-conventional relationship between a taxi driver and his American counterpart, Sarah (Hannah Gold), a mzungu highway engineer.
We meet them the day they decide to spend a lifetime together building roads in Kenya. I saw Davis in a 2022 Fringe production of Alice Childress’s Wine in the Wilderness, but he surpasses that excellent performance here. He drops so far into his character that at one point I wanted to run onstage and hold him myself, unable to simply witness his anguish. Not only does he carry the 90-minute performance (sans intermission) on his back, but he does it with a proper Kenyan accent.
And this is where we give Gold her props. Davis’s performance doesn’t leave Gold in the dust; she rides parallel to him, fueling him on. Placed in the delicate role of passenger, she stays in her lane and holds her own. She is neither (or both) villain and hero.
Death of a Driver invites us to question the sticky line between friendship and coworker—especially across race and class lines. Repeatedly we hear the characters remind each other that “we are together,” but what does that mean? Does it mean we are together as long as we are making money together? Or as long as our political beliefs align? Or, because of colonialism, imperialism, and racism, is a mzungu doomed to never truly understand the concept of togetherness, no matter how hard they try?
Look at your friendships, especially ones that extend across race and class lines (if you have any). Are you truly together? How do you know? Has that loyalty ever been tested? Snider, who spent a significant amount of time living in East Africa in much the same way as his character Sarah, knows all too well the preconceived notions about the so-called white savior complex that attaches to African narratives written by American writers. But Snider doesn’t succumb to those tropes; instead, he rides us close to the edge and then veers off, using stereotypes to the script’s advantage. This play is like a far more complex, far more nuanced version of playwright Alfred Uhry’s Driving Ms. Daisy, if it met Vladimir and Estragon on the road.
Death of a Driver takes place mostly in a bar in a rural village outside Nairobi. (Kudos to scenic designer Marie Laster for the simple, industrial set: you don’t have to do the most to do the most). This setting requires us to leave our comfy American bubble and travel to a place where many audience members have never been—a rural Lua village. It reminds us that “we are together” on this planet and our choices, our waste, our consumerism, and our charity here affect the lives of people everywhere.
It’s easy to say you understand that in theory, but this production helps us to see it in practice. For instance, as a result of human-caused climate change, seven million livestock in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia have died since last fall, according to a recent report by USAID’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network. The carcasses of giraffes, goats, camels, and droves of cattle have also been found in villages after starving to death in northern Kenya. Such losses can be ruinous for families, as the Washington Post reported last year. But did you know anything about this? Probably not. I hope this play and others like it remind us to take our role as global citizens more seriously.
I’m writing this on Election Day in the United States, and as we think about the aftermath of the 2020 election, erupting the storming of the US Capitol, we see similar turmoil in the background of Death of a Driver. We learn how political division is ravaging Kenya, especially around election time, much like in the States.
While both Sarah and Kennedy can agree on the sentiment of whispering fuck the government to one another, they hold diametrically opposed views on what fucking the government means and how that should look. There’s an intense tension in the air as things heat up politically on the stage and in real life. And while we all know what kind of road we’d like to drive on, like the two characters in this play, we can’t seem to agree on what direction we should take.
The title is a sweet, sweet irony in itself: Snider names the play with its plot. We know the what, but we spend an hour and a half glued to the stage to learn the how. Short, plentiful vignettes span many years. The simple stage is a bar in one scene, a symbol of free thought and free speech, and a prison in the next, where free thought can get you killed. All the driving references, from spare tires to potholes, carry double and triple meanings—including the road-side killing of a sacrificial goat.
I am going to see Death of a Driver a second time on November 13, to hear Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, a professor in Temple University’s Department of Africology, give us even more context (InterAct has included a Speaker Sundays series to open up dialogue about the show’s themes with the community). It’s the kind of show you could see repeatedly and still not catch all the ironies—so feel free to see it a few times and once on a Sunday.
What, When, Where
Death of a Driver. By Will Snider, directed by Charlotte Northeast. Through November 20, 2022, at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S Hicks Street, Philadelphia. interacttheatre.org.
Masks are required in the theater. Death of a Driver will offer Social Distance Days on October 29, November 4, and November 10, in which the house will be kept at 60-percent capacity, with space between individuals or parties.
The Drake is a wheelchair-accessible venue with gender-neutral restrooms.
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