Theater Review: Asylum

Cheril N. Clarke’s timely play debuts at HERE’s Downtown Urban Theater Festival

Asylum, a new play by playwright Cheril N. Clarke, premiered on March 17 as part of the Downtown Urban Theater Festival at the HERE Performing Arts Center. The story is based on the devastating true-life events of Prossy Kakooza (Tiffany Barrett), a Ugandan lesbian who fled her homeland in fear of her own father who wanted to “finish out his daughter’s punishment” and clear his family name of shame with an honor killing. Prossy managed to escape to the UK where she appealed for political asylum.

We alternate between the interview process, where Prossy recounts the tale in front of her lawyer (Sarah J. Gafgen) and a desensitized UK Immigrations officer (Walter DeShields) and flashback scenes, a convenient device, revealing the confusion, joy and excitement of Prossy’s coming out and secret relationship with her roommate, Leah (Brenda Tellu), then the fear, abuse, and terror the lovers experience once their relationship is discovered by Prossy’s father, Balondemu (Steve Crum). Their conduct, in the eyes of Balondemu and the entire town, is deplorable justifying repeated acts of rape and physical abuse. “You will go to hell,” becomes a mantra bellowed by all. However, Prossy is already there, and with the fitting intimacy of HERE’s black box theater, we are there with her. Ms. Barett’s gut-wrenching performance at the savagery of those around her for being a lesbian is anything but forgettable. 

There is one oasis, Masani (Nancy Marie), the stepmother. As another woman in Uganda’s male-dominated society, she portrays another fate of women. It is a fate that Prossy would have if her relationship with Leah were not found out. Masani, extremely reticent about her opinions and feelings to the point of extreme repression, was in a personal hell. This, too, is a harrowing experience, a personal hell, and we see this quiet burden in Ms. Marie’s lovely performance.

Without Ms. Tellu’s mirthful delivery of Leah, and Mr. Crum’s performance of Balondemu’s hideous emotional conviction, this story would have lost the layered complexity of Ms. Kakooza’s story. It is a piercing story, revealing real-life consequences and survival.  

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