In a pivotal moment in Burning Coal Theatre’s production of Nine Lives, actor Preston Campbell stands alone, stock still, just off center stage in Murphey School Auditorium. As he pauses and looks at us, the room itself seems to hold its breath.
His character, Ishmael, has just received not only dispiriting but potentially disastrous news. A thin envelope from the British Home Office has told the 22-year-old Zimbabwean that, after months in legal limbo, his application for asylum has been denied. Reeling, he goes in search of Bex, a 19-year-old single mom from Leeds who sort-of befriended him, four months before. Things got complicated; he hasn’t been in contact with her since.
When he finds her, Ishmael collects his thoughts for a moment, and then speaks.
“Waiting to be allowed to live is like flickering in and out of existence,” he says, and turns his head. “Sometimes you’re not even sure if you are real.”
“You made me feel real, Bex.”
The silence after that line lands registers in the solar plexus.
In playwright Zodwa Nyoni’s significant solo study in estrangement, an isolated young man has been forced to flee his home in Harare to navigate two mazes – one social, the other governmental – without the comfort or aid of his family, friends or partner, as a refugee in a foreign land. One reason alone provokes this modern-day odyssey: Ishmael is gay.
Director Jordan Lichtenheld’s wordless opening sequence animates a waking nightmare as Ishmael first walks, and then runs toward us, before the vicious mob evinced in Juan Isler’s compelling sound design catches up with him. The panic in his voice and on his face in the moment before he’s overtaken is difficult to countenance.
It’s even more sobering to note that, given Zimbabwe’s well-documented homophobia, Ishmael may have gotten off easy. Though LGBTQ people remain widely stigmatized there today, in 2013, when Nyoni wrote this striking work, matters were far worse. At the time, most Zimbabwean gays and lesbians lived “underground,” according to GALZ, the country’s leading advocacy group. Police harassment and community violence were routine, encouraged by the anti-gay crusades of then-president Robert Mugabe, who called homosexuals “filth” and “worse than dogs and pigs.” As recently as 2018, 64 percent of Zimbabwean gay men still reported being disowned by their families.
When the mob separates Ishmael from his lover, David, there’s no time for either to plan. Ishmael arrives in London alone, worried about his lover’s status, and unable to contact him. That separation creates a potentially bigger problem: documenting Ishmael’s sexuality, on which his claim of asylum hangs.
“They said it wasn’t enough. They ask me to prove that I am gay,” he says with disbelief. “They ask me, what does a penis feel like? Why do I like it?”
Exiled in a “concrete cocoon” – public housing in the working-class neighborhood of Armley, a run-down, post-industrial section of Leeds – Ishmael subsists on $59 a week. When he forgoes milk and bread to afford computer time at an Internet café, or ventures out to a weekly dinner for refugees at a local church, he revels in the pageantry of street life and neighborhood figures. “I want to remember it,” he shouts. “I want it to remember me. I want it to climb inside me and build a home!”
But street toughs who mark him as easy prey and a predatory landlord who “own[s] everything in this flat, including my dignity” challenge his attempts at reaching out. Lichtenheld conveys Ishmael’s struggles to connect with anyone, as Campbell, through Rebecca Bossen’s expert vocal coaching, vividly impersonates the vivid voices in Ishmael’s world.
Most memorable among these is the blunt but friendly Bex, a salty soul who suffers little foolishness, and Miss Marie Monroe, a drag queen at a gay nightclub where Ishmael experiences dance floor apotheosis to vintage Donna Summer.
These and several others give Ishmael rare things – sanctuary, refuge, rest and strength for the journey.
Nyoni overworks a writer’s crutch in several places. To be honest, by its third iteration, some of us tired of a facile writers’ prompt in which too many consecutive lines began with the same three words.
Still, this rich study in solitude – and all that follows that – reveals how unsuitable a lost home, a lost family, a lost partner, and a lost community had actually been all along. Though Ishmael’s subtraction game is truly traumatic, the little that’s left, at script’s end, is what actually has value.
Nine Lives runs through June 27th. For ticket information visit https://burningcoal.org/.
For a complete listing of Triangle theater events, visit our Calendar Page.