To have witnessed Sam Kebede’s “EthiopianAmerica” in its world premiere at Definition Theatre Company is a blessing and a curse.
Walking into the Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens and through the Kifle’s home, framed by an artificial turf lawn and white pickets taller than the house, bops Johnathan Kifle (Simon Gebremedhin): up-down, left-right, north-south-east-west, over the living room, headphones on. His father, Girma (Joseph Primes), sleeps on the big couch. His brother Daniel (Freedom Martin) sleeps upstairs, occasionally drifting to the ground floor only to circle back up to the tiny bedroom. Elizabeth (Gabrielle Lott-Rogers), conspicuously absent, is already at work.
It’s a morning off, fighting over the remote: sitcoms or sports, “Disturbia” or CNN. Breakfast burrito idyll. Daniel and Johnathan throw jokes back-and-forth. “You move like an ent,” Johnathan says while Daniel dangles the refrigerator door open and closed. Played with genuine love and unabashed goofiness by Gebremedhin, Martin and eventually Lott-Rogers, these exchanges transform from a wash of suburban normalcy into points of anchorage as the tensions and alliances between the four become ever more palpable and textured while deeper undercurrents threaten the family’s safe passage through the day-to-day.
“EthiopianAmerica” walks this fine line of misery and love, Ethiopia and America, understanding and illegibility. The work never explicates and always makes the liminal felt, holding multiple realities in hand without sacrificing specificity or dimensionality. Daniel’s softness exists in tandem with his masculinity. Elizabeth’s gentle adaptability lives right next to her demands for respect. Johnathan’s bravery sits next to his childishness and cowardice. All three carry sadness alongside dreams on their backs .
What threatens these three ultimately is Girma’s existence: his inflexibility and entitlement, which allow him to live without reflection or question. Many of his values are planted firmly in Ethiopia while having achieved what was promised to him by the American Dream. The white picket fence. The emerald lawn. The children. The wife. The power.
All the familial complexity and cultural discord results in violence and then betrayal, both of such enormity that to be witness to them changed my thinking, whether for the better or worse, I can’t say. But there is something beautiful and terrible happening in Kebede’s script underneath Sophiyaa Nayar’s direction. Supported by a cast as brilliantly funny as they are sincere and vulnerable, there is a special sort of threshold that Kebede has stepped foot through. And there’s no turning back. (Jay Van Ort)
Definition Theatre Company at Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln, (773)371-8000, definitiontheatre.org, $15-$25. Through June 9.