The riveting counterpoint between Kennedy, a Kenyan driver for hire, and Sarah, a well-intentioned American engineer who leads a road construction project in the African country, animates the astutely integrated strands of historical, political, moral, social and economic ideas and philosophies that underpin the exceptional Utah premiere of Will Snider’s Death of a Driver, as presented by the Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC).
Snider’s script successfully compacts many complexities about the interlaced tensions and practical challenges of electoral politics, local culture and earnestly conceived projects of economic development in Africa, without becoming dry, pedantic or preachy. The excellent performances of Patrick J. Ssenjovu as Kennedy and Cassandra Stokes-Wylie as Sarah elicit the precise tone for engaging the audience to think more critically about their understanding of African countries and why the connected objectives of economic independence and political self-determination are so formidable.
Presented in the SLAC’s Chapel Theatre and directed by Alexandra Harbold, the play moves at a crisp, clear pace through seven scenes alternating between a bar and a prison, covering a span of 18 years. The set’s versatile design (thanks to the work of designers Shawn Fisher, William Peterson and Tommy Jennings) serves the narrative momentum well. Highlights from this minimalist set include railroad car doors and corrugated metal panels on one side, numerous empty beer bottles suspended from the ceiling and effects such as occasionally flickering lights.
Ebullient and charismatic, Kennedy welcomes Sarah, who is drawn to his enthusiasm and hires him for her project. They quickly become friends, always happy to share beers and stories with each other. However, in several deftly nuanced foreshadowing moments, it is evident the relationship will endure major moral and philosophical tests that eventually threaten to disintegrate the bonds of trust they have enjoyed. Kennedy is passionate about his support for the political opposition and prospects in the upcoming elections. It is his political activism that leads to his periodic arrest and imprisonment.
Snider’s play is grounded by relevant experience. He worked several years for an agricultural NGO in Kenya and Ethiopia, recruiting small-scale farmers with microloans of seeds and fertilizer. Sarah’s character in the play echoes, in part, Snider’s positive ambitions in the early phases of his experience with foreign economic development projects. However, he eventually recognized that such projects could be too simplistic, underestimating the importance of electoral politics in many African countries. Cast as an engineer who is confident about the orderly and rational nature of science and technology that drives her work, Sarah listens to what Kennedy says about politics, even joining the chant when he says, “fuck the government.” However, that sentiment is spoken with different mindsets and impact for each character.
Tribalism still rules in Africa and it is endemic to the continent’s politics, as I have discovered with various clients on the African and American sides in my own work. It is the basis of a sly political strategy because it always is easier to solidify loyalty from one’s own tribe than another. A tribe becomes a privileged class and its members always rise to protecting their own, especially when that means access to the presidency and the country’s ruling party. No tribal member dares contradicting or opposing another, because it would be an unforgivable taboo. The tribal members of the political opposition follow the same code. The bitter reality is that a tribal member’s loyalty does not guarantee his safety or indispensability. Elected officials in many African countries go to great lengths to preserve their political power, even if their country teeters continuously in economically vulnerable circumstances. Sometimes, it means sacrificing a member of the tribe.
Colonialism and imperialism fueled the rifts that did not heal once the wave of independence movements spread more than a half century ago across the African continent. Some of the most vicious attacks are inflicted upon groups loyal to independent tribal kings, who preside as cultural leaders for members who live in areas straddling or crossing over the borders of two or more African countries. Sadly, violence and the compulsion to settle scores continue to perpetuate mistrust, a thematic strand that emerges in Snider’s well-considered script. Kennedy knows the pain of the “entrenched impunity” synonymous with the political culture in Kenya, Uganda and other nations on the continent. It cannot be a distraction to be dismissed so readily by Sarah or by any other outsider who believes that their project alone could be the magic bullet to defeating poverty in Kenya or any other developing nation on the continent.
The road project also is essential to developing Death of a Driver’s narrative core, along with the opening scene reference where Kennedy and Sarah talk about a goat killed in the middle of the road. Many African scholars have cited structural adjustment initiatives as erroneous policies, mainly because they move too slowly to generate real economic impact or become the by-products of governmental corruption. On its own, erecting a road, for example, will not stimulate or accelerate technological development. The infrastructure will age and require repairs or replacement perpetually, thus declining in economic value or impact over time. In the play, there are references to potholes, an ironic bit considering a mention in a late scene when Sarah returns to Kenya to receive an award for the construction project. As one of my Ugandan clients told me as part of his research for a forthcoming book on African migrant movements, drivers learn quickly to dodge potholes in the road in order to avoid accidents. And, many have found it easier to laugh at other drivers who bump into them than to demand their elected officials fix the roads.
Ssenjovu, a native Ugandan, is electrifying in his unquestionably credible portrayal of Kennedy. Stokes-Wylie equally is just as authentic in her role. The acting chemistry in this magnificent chamber theater piece is superlative.
Snider’s play was workshopped in 2018, as part of the SLAC Playwrights’ Lab, and it received an off-Broadway premiere in New York City earlier this year. Snider had penned the script six years ago but he thought it was a dead project until he was invited in late 2017 to present it at the lab. It’s a smartly written, entertaining play that packs the desired emotional punch while strengthening the intelligent epiphanies anchoring the narrative.
Rounding out the production team are Jason Jensen (sound design), Kerstin Hallows (costume design) and William Richardson (stage manager). Performances continue through Oct. 20 for Death of a Driver, the opening production of SLAC’s 49th season. Performances will take place each week, daily on Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and on Sundays at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Additional performances are slated on Sept. 21 at 2 p.m., Sept. 24 at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 1 at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 12 at 2 p.m.
Ticket information is available through the SLAC website.