Friday, June 13, 2014

“The Human Spirit” at the Odyssey Has A Lot of Heart by M.R. Hunter

Nelson Mandela's death earlier this year elicited a worldwide outpouring of genuine admiration for a revolutionary but peaceful leader who after being imprisoned for 27 years, went on to become the first president of South Africa and championed tirelessly for a transition from a racially divided apartheid country to one working for progressive change. For all that Mandela was able to achieve, the roots of prejudice, fear, hate and political corruption are still ever present in the embittered colonized African countries. While it may seem another world away, the people still struggling to mend the fences and bloodshed after half a century of tyranny continues to affect us all.

This is Carole Eglash-Kosoff's primary mission with her play "The Human Spirit" based on her nonfiction book published in 2010 recounting the unlikely heroes of four women who banded together to make a difference in the community. These women nicknamed the "Mamas" comprised of two segregated locals (the charming Allison Reeves and exquisite singer Rea Segoati), a South African nun (Zuri Alexander) and a white Jewish sympathizer (Lisa Dobbyn). They invited great risk to ensure medication, basic essentials and food reached those who were in most desperate need of them and due to apartheid, were the ones least able to have access. Their journey and refusal to acquiesce under pressure, imprisonment and physical harm captures the enduring strength of compassion and fearlessness in the worst of times.

 Judged solely on its artistic merit, the play falls short of much more than a stilted docudrama. The dialogue rings true with authenticity based on the interviews, but the overall lack of cohesion and necessary arc to the storyline is hamstrung with overzealous subplots and superficial characterization. Good versus bad is hammered home repeatedly until it loses all its intrinsic power. For these obvious shortcomings, Donald Squires directs with a sensitive flair set against a remarkably colorful and realistic set by Gary Lee Reed. The 12-person cast is uneven but the main players offer spirit in lieu of style to give the plights a greater passionate appeal.

Viewed from a historic or activist lens, this production satisfies and has enough resonance to illicit conversation afterwards, which is one of Eglash-Kosoff's main goals. Apartheid is not easily conveyed into art, although filmmakers like Peter Jackson's District 9 have attempted to incorporate an important human rights issue into a storyline. Athol Fugard is probably the best playwright in this area of injustice but he should not be the lone voice in the creative wilds either. In a significant way, "The Human Spirit" is raising awareness, attention and service to a story that fails dramatically onstage but does inspire hope and courage in the about face of cynicism.

Expectations should be measured by what this play is trying to achieve. If you're looking for ground-breaking theater that pushes the envelope, then this isn't the show to see given the Fringe Festival and a number of risk-taking ventures playing from Echo Theater Company in Atwater Village to the Rogue Machine in Santa Monica. For those who enjoy true stories of harrowing perseverance and the optimistic buoyancy of humanity, then this is a must-see and a story that deserves if not critical reception, then at least the opportunity to consider our unheralded heroes and give them our thanks by listening to their truth and convictions.

"The Human Spirit"
Runs through June 29
Fri & Sat @ 8 p.m.
Sundays @ 3 p.m.
A guest production at the Odyssey Theatre
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Tickets: $30
PH: 323-960-4412

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