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Sister Soldiers 

Lookingglass tackles the story of Liberian rebel leader Black Diamond

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Black Diamond: The Years The Locusts Have Eaten | Lookingglass Theatre Company

WHEN Through 5/20: Thu 6:30 PM, Fri 7 PM, Sat 3 and 8 PM, Sun 3 PM

WHERE Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan

PRICE $20-$50

INFO 312-337-0665

These people can't even wrap up genocide. We've been hearing about this slaughter in Darfur forever--and they still haven't finished. The aggressors are moving like termites across that country. It's like genocide by committee. Who's running this holocaust in Darfur, FEMA?--Ann Coulter at anncoulter.com

Memo to Ann Coulter: Darfur isn't a country. It's a region of Sudan. But the right-wing media's answer to Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, probably isn't alone in her ignorance. There have been so many humanitarian crises in Africa over the decades--civil wars, revolutions, famines, AIDS epidemics, Ebola outbreaks--who can keep track? Sure, once in a while we pay attention, when Hollywood does a solemn movie showcasing a deserving black actor: Hotel Rwanda, Blood Diamond, The Last King of Scotland. But when it comes to the dark continent, compassion fatigue remains a problem even for those less coldhearted than Coulter.

Awareness of that fatigue runs throughout J. Nicole Brooks's flawed but fascinating new play at Lookingglass, Black Diamond: The Years the Locusts Have Eaten, a ferocious look at recent history in Africa's first republic, Liberia, founded by freed American slaves in 1822. In the first years of the 21st century it was embroiled in a civil war between the forces of President Charles Taylor (who went into exile in 2003 with an estimated $100 million siphoned from the government treasury) and a rebel army, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD).

The play, Brooks's first, was inspired by Daimon Xanthopoulos's 2003 article in the now-defunct hip-hop magazine Honey tracing the actions of Liberia's female guerrillas and their leader, Colonel "Black Diamond," a 23-year-old woman with a tragic past whose fearless ass kicking makes Pam Grier look like Betty Crocker. (Liberia now has the first elected female president in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.) In Brooks's play the guerrillas not only challenge the tyranny of Taylor's army but take aim at the sexual abuse of women by both the president's soldiers and the rebels. Their battle cry is emblazoned in glowing paint across one wall of Sibyl Wickersheimer's blasted concrete set: "No Stupid Man Allow."

Black Diamond is occasionally clunky. The narrative through line--an idealistic American journalist working for the BBC, Jim Fox, finds his preconceptions challenged by the unbelievable cruelty he encounters--is overly familiar and eventually distracts from the women's story. There's a tug-of-war for the play's heart between Fox, an African-American (and part Native American) who feels a special obligation to cover Liberia's plight, and Black Diamond, who provides him grudging access to her story and her girls' stories. These heartrending histories are filled with murder, rape, and torture, yet the women doubt that they'll move anyone outside Liberia to come to their aid. Though it's interesting to see a nonwhite journalist take the outsider's role for a change, Fox's struggle to reconcile his African heritage with his privilege as an American just isn't as gripping as the women's lives. Even with the play's problems, however, its energy, passion, smarts, and guts make it that rarity in local theater--a piece that feels truly dangerous in all the ways that matter.

Though this is a highly physical production, directors David Catlin and Brooks don't use the pretty circus tricks or enchanting tableaux of earlier Lookingglass shows. For their first entrance, Black Diamond and the four members of her posse swoop down on harnesses, rescuing a woman about to be raped by one of Taylor's soldiers. In another encounter with soldiers, a cameraman's fingers get broken, and the sickening crack is part of Andre Pleuss and Kevin O'Donnell's sound design. The rebels clamber over the rough walls and sandbags of the set so recklessly you fear they'll fall. And forget the symbolic red ribbons of Mary Zimmerman's work; here the stage blood flows freely.

This isn't an unrelentingly grim work. Weaving in the historical background, Brooks shows a deft, sometimes lighthearted touch. Vaudeville bits involving a ventriloquist's dummy (Kevin Douglas, funny in several roles) call to mind the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, who frequently uses seamy showbiz metaphors to suggest racial tension. Three presidents--George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and the current occupant--reveal their apathy toward Liberia's plight in a series of speech snippets. (The latter gets it confused with Libya.) And a roller-skating Thomas Jefferson explains his support for the repatriation of freed slaves to Liberia--which many have suspected was just a cynical strategy to get rid of America's "race problem"--while the daughters he's fathered with Sally Hemings get underfoot.

Despite Alana Arenas's electrifying portrayal of Black Diamond and towering performances by the women in her squad, Brooks's characters aren't quite three-dimensional. She uses awkward dream sequences involving Fox's epilepsy to segue into the history lessons. And in another first-play mistake, she lets her metaphors trump credibility: Fox cites Pandora's box to illustrate how he sees Africa yet oddly doesn't know that hope remained--a wise old African has to tell him. The play also feels like it has two or three endings, none of which really brings Black Diamond into the foreground.

These problems are fixable, however--and the play deserves further development. Brooks is fortunate that Lookingglass has given this rich if imperfect script a full production. And Lookingglass has found a bold, distinctive young writer, willing to tackle a big, messy, frightening subject with compassion and panache. If Brooks never finds quite the right ending, that might be OK. After all, the desire to wrap things up quickly can sometimes boil down to a call for annihilation. Just ask Coulter.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Liz Lauren.

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