Walking into EthiopianAmerica, the audience is greeted by the almost ceaseless dancing of the main character Johnny (Simon Gebremedhin). It’s a durational pre-performance which gives the audience a hint of what’s to come. Sam Kebede’s world premiere play directed by Sophiyaa Nayar shows us a slice in the life of an Ethiopian-American family living in southern California, Two brothers, Johnny and Danny (Freedom Martin), are apparent opposites Johnny is a nerd at school and a frenetic ball of energy at home who impulsively watches the same movies again and again. Danny, the younger brother, is a jock at school, but at home he’s distant and lethargic, biting his tongue often and choosing to sketch in his journal instead. As we watch the family move through a day in sped up time, we begin to realize that the children’s behaviors are indicative of a larger imbalance in the family’s power dynamics.
The set of the play shows the audience two levels of the Kifle home and includes some clever distortions which emphasize some of those power dynamics. Johnny and Danny’s room is a small cube on the corner of the second level, perched on top of a wide but bleak living room. Behind the set, a white picket fence reaches above the first floor, fencing the acting space in.
EthiopianAmerica takes its audience on a journey through the patterns of domestic abuse as the Kifle family experiences them. Small interactions like changing the channel, and leaving the room become navigations of power. The play seemed to dip into an authentic knowledge of how abuse permeates the mundane, and how it can normalize horror and trauma for those who live through it. Specific light and sound cues are used throughout the play to indicate a build of tension in a character, and I found those moments more distracting and confusing than evocative.
Despite its name, EthiopianAmerica doesn’t do very much to delve into the relationship between the Ethiopian immigrant identity of its characters and the abuse they perpetrate and endure.
It has successful moments, but the play has trouble building to the crescendo it needs and drags in the middle. There’s a tension the characters live with throughout the play which is observable but not necessarily engaging. And it was well into the play before I felt that tension myself, even though I had already guessed what was going to happen. The characters never say what they’re thinking which feels true to life, but without any other way to access their internal lives, the characters were to hard to connect to and understand.
Still, EthiopianAmerica is a show worth seeing. The slowly unfurling plot gives the audience an appropriate sense of time distortion. The stillness which settles in after small conflicts explode, makes the audience share in the inaction of its characters. Sam Kebede has a gift for writing everyday dialogue that feels real while carrying lots of meaning. More importantly, EthiopianAmerica doesn’t feel quite like any show about domestic violence or immigrant experiences I’ve seen before, which is a great reason to check out this new perspective from two emerging artists.
EthiopianAmerica, produced by Definition Theatre Company runs at Victory Gardens through June 9th
Johnathan Kifle – Simon Gebremedhin
Elizabeth Kifle – Gabrielle Lott-Rogers
Daniel Kifle – Freedom Martin
Girma – Joseph Primes
Director – Sophiyaa Nayar
Playwright – Sam Kebede
Assistant Director – Ebony Chuukwu
Scenic Designer – Eleanor Kahn
Costume Designer – Paul Kim
Lighting Designer – Eric Watkins
Sound Designer – Joshua Willcox
Properties Designer – Therese Ritchie
Technical Director – Caswell James
Co-Production Manager – Neel McNeill*
Co-Production Manager – Alexandra Oparka*
Lighting Supervisor – Slick Jorgensen
Head Electrician – Alon Stotter
Master Electrician – Louis Lothan
Dramaturg – Athanasia Giannetos
Dialect Coach – Sana Selemon
Fight Coreographer – Maya Prentiss
Fight Consultant – Casey Hoekstra
Casting Director AJ Links
Graphic Designer – Ari Craven
Stage Manager – Rebecca Ross
Assistant Stage Manager – Ariel Beller
Photography – Joe Mazza