A note from Artistic Director Robert Falls Meet Playwright Charles Smith

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A Note from Artistic Director Robert Falls

Meet Playwright Charles Smith

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A Note About Objects in the Mirror
Of the many plays we at the Goodman have showcased during our annual New Stages Festival, few have sparked the excitement and admiration expressed by audiences two years ago for the developmental production of Charles Smith’s Objects in the Mirror. Inspired by the harrowing true story of Shedrick Yarkpai, a young Liberian refugee-turned-actor, Charles’ play chronicles Shedrick’s extraordinary decade long journey: from his escape from the violent civil wars that plagued Liberia from 1989 to

2003 to his eventual re-settlement in Adelaide, Australia. Along the way, Shedrick was forced to forgo his own identity to assume that of his dead cousin—and that decision, and its many ramifications during the years of his journey, provides the central conflict of what I think is one of the most powerful new works that I’ve experienced during my 30-year tenure as the Goodman’s Artistic Director.

Objects in the Mirror is indeed a gripping, powerfully wrought story of a young man’s courageous escape from a world of almost unthinkable violence, capturing in terms both stark and poetic the realities of that violence and the dreams which fuel his odyssey. But more than that, Charles has created a profoundly moving exploration of self, identity, memory and survival—ultimately forcing us to confront, as young Shedrick did, the personally and morally complex questions that result when one is forced to discard one’s own identity to achieve survival under the guise of another.
It is a fascinating question, one without easy answers or definite prescriptions, and Charles explores the complicated ambiguities and heartbreaking alternatives with consummate sensitivity, profound wisdom and striking theatricality. I am very pleased that this premiere production continues Charles’ association with his frequent collaborator (and the director of the New Stages workshop staging), Goodman Resident Director Chuck Smith, whose customary eloquence and focus are a perfect match for this richly resonant story.
Objects in the Mirror does exactly what I feel great plays can and should do: use the exploration of a complex contemporary event to elucidate intensely personal and fundamental issues, issues to which we can all relate whatever our own experiences or backgrounds may be. I am very proud to bring this thought-provoking and moving play to the Goodman’s Albert stage—a work which tells, I feel, an essential story of our time, and the crowning achievement of one of the most passionate and accomplished writers now working in the American theater.
Robert Falls

Artistic Director

Objects in the Mirror is funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), which has been threatened with elimination. Visit page 53 to learn what you can do to support the NEA.

A Conversation with Playwright Charles Smith

By Jonathan L. Green
Shortly before rehearsals began for Objects in the Mirror, playwright Charles Smith spoke with the play’s dramaturg, Jonathan L. Green, about the real life inspiration for the story and his enduring collaboration with director Chuck Smith (no relation).
Jonathan L. Green: Shedrick Yarkpai, the protagonist of Objects in the Mirror, is based on a real person—an actor and Liberian refugee now living in Australia. How did you meet Shedrick?
Charles Smith: In 2009, Shedrick appeared in a production of my play Free Man of Color, in Adelaide, Australia. That play is set in 1815, and centers on the first African American to attend college at Ohio University, where I now teach. In my research for the play, I realized that the reason they brought this ex-slave to the university was to then be able to send him as an educated free man to Liberia to stand in receivership of all of these people they had planned to deport. The goal of the American Colonization Society was to deport freed black men and women, so that if people saw black folks walking the streets in America, they would know they were slaves.

So that was my discovery, and that’s the play

I wrote. Shedrick was cast in that role and I met him there in Australia. Then I went back the next year when they did another play of mine, and cast Shedrick again. That’s when Shedrick started to tell me about his own story.
JLG: How faithful to Shedrick’s true story did you feel you needed to be in Objects in the Mirror?
CS: The first act of the play is the story that Shedrick told me: he left Liberia running from the war and ended up in a series of refugee camps with family. His uncle said, “I can get us out of here.” I wanted to detail those events and that sort of travel. The character of his cousin, Zaza, is a composite, but the uncle character is real. I never met him and really don’t have an idea of who he is, but I was fascinated with this idea of Shedrick’s dilemma, and how his uncle played a part in it.
JLG: In 1996, the Goodman produced your play Black Star Line, about Marcus Garvey and his campaign for a black nation in Liberia to which African diasporic peoples could return. Earlier, you spoke about your play Free Man of Color. And in Objects in the Mirror, our hero is a young man seeking to flee Liberia in the midst of its civil war. Could we consider these plays to be speaking from three different vantage points on the theme of black identity in a colonized world?
CS: That’s an interesting question. I keep discovering more information and the conversation goes in a different direction with each play—so if they are in conversation with one another, I think it’s a sort of conflicted and disjointed conversation. With Black Star Line, I explored what Marcus Garvey was attempting to do, and found that to be very admirable. And of course, the wheels came off soon after, but I thought his goals were admirable. As I was writing Free Man of Color, I understood more of what had been going on; I thought, “Am I gonna be truthful, or am I gonna follow my original plot?” I ended up having to be truthful, and that play looked at Liberia in a completely different way. Objects in the Mirror is a third point of view, and one that is radically different from the first two. If you follow the plays in chronological order, they say something about the influence of America on Liberia. There is this theory that when an oppressor leaves, the oppressed then emulate the oppressor. The French countries have that sort of French flavor and the English countries have that English flavor. In the Congo, we have that violence that King Leopold of Belgium visited upon them, and that violence can still be seen there. And I think Liberia still has the aroma of American corruption and exploitation. I think they are in conversation with each other. I don’t know if it’s a healthy conversation, but there is a conversation there, certainly.
JLG: You and the Goodman’s Resident Director Chuck Smith have worked together several times through the years. Is it true that you not only share a name but a birthday as well?
CS: Yes, we share the same birthday. Not the same year, though. We always call each other on our birthday and give each other our best wishes. And I love working with him.
JLG: How did you two meet?
CS: Chuck was already established in Chicago theater when I finished graduate school. I remember everybody in the theater always getting excited because Chuck Smith was in the building. “Chuck Smith is coming, Chuck Smith is coming, Chuck Smith is coming!” And then Chuck Smith walked in the door. I’d be at a party and women would come up to me after hearing my name is Charles Smith and they would say, “Oh, you’re Chuck!” and buddy up to me. I’d reply, “No I’m not Chuck, I’m Charles Smith,” and the light would go out of their eyes and they would walk away! I remember telling Chuck, “I’m tired of people mistaking me for you. One day people are going to mistake you for me.” Much later, Chuck called me and said, “Hey man, I got a call, somebody was looking for ‘my play.’ They were looking for you! Congratulations.” It was a great moment in my life. Now we call each other periodically saying, “Hey man, a guy called me looking for you.” We still get a big kick out of it.
JLG: Why do the two of you work together so well?
CS: Chuck doesn’t try to write the play, he directs it. When I’m in rehearsal, I want to make sure everything is firing on all cylinders, and there are times when I hear something and think, “You know, that speech is wonderfully written, but is it moving things forward?” And if it’s not, I cut it. Chuck is the only director I’ve worked with who, when I go to cut the speech, says, “No, no, no, wait, wait! Let’s talk about this.” Other directors say, “You got any more cuts?” But Chuck looks at every word and says, “This is the play I’m directing.” I’ve worked with other directors who are trying to direct the play they think I’m going to write, the play that they hope it’s gonna be. Chuck directs the play that’s there; he directs what’s on the page. I just love working with him. He’s down to earth. I like his sensibility when he talks about characters and relationships.
JLG: In your years working together, have you seen your working relationship change?
CS: I don’t think it has changed, but it’s deepened. We’ve developed a sort of shorthand. And when I say ‘shorthand’ it’s literal: Chuck does this thing where he says, “Well, you know…” and he waves his little finger and thumb back to back and sideways, and I know exactly what that means.
JLG: Your play is set in Liberia, South Australia, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire, but certainly audiences will find parallels and echoes as we continue to have deep and difficult conversations about refugees, immigration, genocide and racism in our own country.

These aren’t new issues, certainly; but how do you think Goodman audiences might relate to the show in 2017, as opposed to a few years ago when you wrote the script?
CS: I actually thought a couple years ago, “I’ve sat on this too long. The play is probably no longer relevant.” Man, was I wrong. I think it was during [the play’s first developmental production at the 2015 New Stages Festival] when the situation in Syria started to get much, much worse. I realized it speaks to everything that’s going on in the world. The sort of panic that the play captures, as these characters flee horrific violence. And the sense of dread felt by these good, hardworking people who just want to live peacefully without fear of being discovered– it’s the same. There are Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans living in this country under the same fear. Where I teach, there is a student from Syria; he’s here with his family, and he’s terrified. He’s so afraid of being deported and being sent back to his death. And if it was only him, his fear wouldn’t be as great. But he has two children and a wife, and he’s afraid they are going to be murdered as well. That is part of what this play is about.
JLG: Have you been in touch with Shedrick as you were writing this play? Does he know it’s going to be seen by thousands of people in the next months?
CS: We have been in touch. In fact, when I finished a draft of it, I was a little concerned. I wanted to show him, and I thought, “He may not like it. And if he doesn’t like it, hopefully I can address his concerns. But if I can’t address his concerns, what do I do? Do I just put it in a drawer?” But he read it and he was deeply moved and honored. It was a difficult thing to do because I felt the responsibility of telling his story, but ultimately I’m not only telling his story; I have to tell my story, too. To serve both of those masters well, I think, was the great challenge of the play.












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by Jonathan L. Green
Objects in the Mirror’s protagonist, Shedrick Yarkpai, begins his journey in his West African coastal home of

Liberia, where the lingering trauma of two connected civil wars (spanning 1989–2003) has left much of the country in physical and economic ruin to this day—parts of Monrovia, the capital city, lost power in a 1989 attack, and remain without electricity. Due to the large death toll, and even larger resettlement figures, more than half of today’s Liberian population is under age 18.

But from this country’s beginnings more than 150 years prior, the idea of Liberia was born from strange bedfellows—and into conflict.
Liberia declared independence in 1847 and became the first of what are now considered the modern African republics. The early 19th century saw the founding of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which was dedicated to the emigration of free people of color from the United States. In what might seem a curious alliance at first blush, the ACS was established by two disparate groups: abolitionists (mostly Quakers and other Methodist leaders, who hoped emigration would put an end to slavery), and mid-Atlantic slaveholders (who feared a growing population of freed slaves could result in revolution). Still others felt that racial equality was a losing bet in America: the only way for black Americans to live free of the binds of racial discrimination was to send them to a black homeland. Abolitionist dissent within the ACS escalated in the Society’s first years, as they realized the slaveholders’ schemes. Still, by 1867, the Society had transported or arranged for the transport of more than

13,000 black emigrants to the “Grain Coast”— the present republic of Liberia, which extends from the Mano River to Cape Palmas and borders Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire.

For the first 40 years of the republic, every president elected to lead Liberia had been born in the United States—and until 1980, every president had been of Americo-Liberian descent. Those leaders either neglected or disempowered the indigenous Liberian population, even though the Americo-Liberians made up only five percent of the country’s total population. In April of 1980, President William R. Tolbert was assassinated in a coup led by a mostly-unknown soldier, Samuel Doe, who, in his first act as the country’s first indigenous Liberian president, promptly (and publicly) executed nearly the entirety of his

Americo-Liberian predecessor’s cabinet. Doe had the U.S. government’s support and financial aid, as the Reagan administration fought to strengthen the country’s ties to the Western bloc and prevent the spread of Cold War era communism in Africa. As Doe’s reign continued, though, his governing style came to resemble that of his predecessor: characterized by greed, corruption and crimes against humanity. Doe initially claimed that he would govern in favor of all native Liberians, but it soon became apparent that he favored the Krahn, his own tribe, and the Mandingo; other tribes, including the Gio and Mano, rebelled. Towards the end of 1989, Gio and Mano military forces—led by Prince Yormie Johnson and Charles Taylor, two officials who fled Liberia years earlier to escape the Doe regime—crossed the Liberian border from Côte d’Ivoire, where they had been building anti-Doe rebel forces. A decade after taking power, Doe was captured and brutally killed in a coup lead by Johnson—beginning a two-part civil war that would last nearly a decade and a half, leaving almost 250,000 dead and more than one million displaced.

In 1990, Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and Johnson’s splinter group, the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), together struggled to maintain power over the country. Doe supporters and former militants from nearby Sierra Leone and Guinea formed the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO); the brutal fighting between the NPFL and the ULIMO continued for years, despite attempted interventions from the Economic Community of West African States, the United Nations and leaders from other African countries (including Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania and Ghana). Notably, and despite its financial and colonial ties with Liberia, the United States did not participate in these intervention attempts.
Taylor’s military tactics and those of his opponents were cruel and extraordinary: they pressed scores of young boys (many aged nine to 13) into service as child soldiers and forced them into drug habits to both maintain physical control and strip them of mental independence. At one point in the war, it is estimated that more than a quarter of Liberia’s fighters were children. Finally in 1996, the warring factions agreed to disarmament; the next year, Taylor was elected president in a landslide victory. Bloodshed slowed but did not stop; Taylor kept the “blood diamond” trade going in West Africa, buying weapons for his own administration from extremist rebels in neighboring countries.
Less than two years after the official end of the first civil war, displaced Liberians in Guinea (mostly members of ULIMO) invaded Liberia from the north, and alliances between those forces and militias in Sierra Leone led to major aggressions in north and northwest Liberia.

They pushed further into Taylor’s Liberia, and in 2003, anti-Taylor forces from another rebel group originating in Côte d’Ivoire began an invasion from the southwest. As rebels closed in on Monrovia, Taylor resigned from the presidency and fled to Nigeria to live in exile.

Following years of postponements, 62-year-old Taylor was finally charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2012, and sentenced to 50 years imprisonment in a maximum-security facility in the United Kingdom. Following his resignation, Liberia was handed to an interim government and, in 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected the first female president in Africa. Sirleaf was a supporter of Taylor in the 1980s and early ‘90s, but she later became one of his fiercest political opponents.
Today, both because of the wars and an Ebola virus outbreak in 2014, the majority of businesses in Liberia have left, rendering the country with one of the smallest GDPs per-capita in the world, and with nearly two-thirds of its citizens unemployed. Average current life expectancy in

Liberia is under 59 years, also among the lowest in the world, with a very high maternal mortality rate. There is some hope of these statistics bettering over the next several years through a burgeoning palm oil industry, though critics suggest that this industry may create just another plantation economy—enriching a few and leaving many destitute.


By Jonathan L. Green

As the curtain rises on Charles Smith’s Objects in the Mirror, Liberian refugee Shedrick Yarkpai has been resettled in Australia— one of more than one million refugees displaced when their homes and communities were destroyed in the Liberian civil wars.
A plurality of internationally-resettled refugees ended up in neighboring countries in West Africa: Guinea, Sierra Leone and Côte d’Ivoire, often near those countries’ shared borders. In these areas, refugee camps sprang up in large numbers, often assisted by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Rescue Committee and Médicins Sans Frontières. Spare to the point of extreme poverty, these camps sprawled out over large areas; in Kouankan, Guinea, for example, nearly 35,000 displaced Liberians lived, sometimes for a decade or longer, in a two-square-mile camp carved out of the thick

forest, filled with mud huts and soil-dyed tents. Food from the UN World Food Programme was rationed parsimoniously, and Guinean regulations forbade international refugees from hunting in or planting on the land of or outside the camps. The refugees existed without occupation and in penury: in Kouankan, there was no work, little education and most had no property other than the clothing on their backs.

The camps were able to provide a sort of safety— in many, there were rules that all non-residents had to leave the camp by nightfall. Still, extremist rebel soldiers often snuck into the camps at night under cover of dark, for reasons respectable (visiting displaced family members) and reprehensible (looting and forced recruitment of child soldiers).
An interesting mix of characteristics define these national borders, many first drawn during the early and mid-19th century. In a way, the borders are arbitrary, as they don’t signify divisions in ethnic or tribal identities, nor do they necessarily demarcate the lands of the great West African kingdoms and empires of the middle ages. The tribal factions (Krahn, Mandingo, Gio, Mano and more) that played a part in the Liberian civil wars were not constrained by borders on a map; because of that, rebel armies could train and grow in neighboring countries before invading and pushing further into Liberian terrain. There were no major linguistic differences on either side of these borders, either: the cultures were practically indistinguishable. Still, national leaders protecting—and often embezzling—the wealth of the area’s natural resources, including gold, iron ore and diamonds, kept vigilant guard over the borders. For a civilian, border-crossing risked life, limb and money.
An even greater challenge for these refugees was intercontinental resettlement. Sanctuary countries (including Australia, as depicted in Objects in the Mirror, as well as Canada, the U.S. and a dozen others) admitted Liberian refugees—but demand far outweighed what the countries were willing to accept. According to the UNHCR, eligibility for international resettlement was based on criteria that included level of education (preferring refugees with higher education), familial and cultural links to the areas of resettlement and a high perceived likelihood of seamless cultural and community integration.

International resettlement applications also considered the urgency of the circumstances: those who could demonstrate more immediate danger to themselves and their families in their current country of residence (whether Liberia or its neighbors) were more frequently granted refuge.

The “lucky” Liberian refugees granted resettlement in international sanctuary countries were guaranteed a culture shock and made to do with very little. The UNHCR provided these individuals and families a tiny budget and basic job skills training for a 90-day introductory period, after which they were left to earn their own wages, facing often-challenging labor laws for non-citizens. And shifting political stances in the host countries could further upend their lives. In 2007, for example, George W. Bush signed an “enforced departure” order for Liberian refugees granted a temporary protection status; 14,000 people who had resettled in the U.S. had only 18 months to return to Liberia, following the peaceable election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to Liberian presidency. Suddenly, Liberians who had spent nearly 20 years in the U.S. faced deportation, including the possibility of being separated from their young children who had been born U.S. citizens. Of the 16 international sanctuary countries committed to accepting certain quotas of international refugees, Australia has remarkably efficient and generous strategies for assisting and caring for resettled refugees as they enter, participate and enrich the communities into which they are placed.
In 2004, after Liberia’s disarmament and the resignation of President Charles Taylor, UNHCR began a significant multi-year effort to repatriate Liberians who had been displaced to other countries in West Africa—more than one third of the total displaced. The UNHCR was able to provide minimal remuneration for those repatriating and some modest assistance in rebuilding the country’s crumbling infrastructure—but funding for that effort fell short, and national improvements slowed dramatically.
Though the young population in Liberia is growing slowly today, it is estimated that nearly a quarter of Liberia’s pre-war residents, like Shedrick, left the land they called home, perhaps never to return.
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