Perhaps a kidney transplant could make for scintillating theatre, just not here
The one-man show has become a staple of Spoleto Festival USA’s theatre offering in recent years. The scaled-down productions are nice low-cost options for the budget-minded festival-goer.
And certainly the one-man-and-a-desk sets, maybe a podium too, with some inventive blocking, lighting, other audio-visual aids, not only do they show there was a director involved but flow nicely with the big festival’s overarching aesthetic.
The challenge for an actor/writer in these shows, though, is to talk about himself for 90 minutes without the audience thinking: Isn’t there somebody else we can hear from?
The actor in a one-man show has a lot on his shoulders, no doubt, but after a while all one sees is a big head.
Sekou Sundiata’s poetic exploration of his experience with kidney disease shows moments of loveliness, eventually concluding that the fragility of life is also its strength and beauty. Unfortunately, these flutters of insight, and flights of language like “black scat syllables of sacred science,” are enshrouded in a fog of rambling narrative, and one’s eyes begin to grow heavy like Sundiata’s did before he knew what was wrong with him.
On paper, this narrative should be engaging. Five friends come together to offer up their kidneys. There are funny characters like the hospital roommate who refuses to take his hat off for surgery. As he recovers from his transplant, Sundiata breaks his neck in a car accident, and later on vacation at the beach watches a family search for their drowned father.
A small screen displays abstracted elements of the story, a beating heart or jumble of machinery for his dialysis experience. With a silky-smooth, powerful voice, Sundiata has a confident stage presence and good timing, and slips into other characters like a skilled actor.
When he reveals that his heroin usage in the ’60s, back when he was an up-and-coming cool-cat poet like Gil Scott-Heron, may have caused his kidney problems, it seems the story might pick up some momentum. But it’s clear no narrative arc is intended, perhaps meant to show the randomness of life.
At the outset Sundiata claimed he didn’t learn anything from his ordeal, only “figured some shit out.” But the facts he did learn and passes on in detail, about his 1,800 dialysis treatments, or the way a cadaver can save eight lives and still be made presentable for an open-casket funeral, were like smelling salts.
One can’t help but think that someone who’d been through kidney disease or perhaps was a urologist would watch this show thinking “yes, yes, yes!”
When hobbled, the disease made Sundiata ask: “What happened to my cool?” In the hospital he had to use his “plantation name,” Robert Feaster.
It wasn’t mentioned but that plantation must have been close by. Sundiata’s father lives in the Lowcountry, as does much of his family, presumably the same folks who didn’t step forward and offer their organs.
Maybe it’s too much to ask at the festival’s lowest price point, but it would’ve been nice to see this show retooled, so we could see the poet filter through some of this rich and difficult local history.
blessing the boats • Spoleto Festival USA • $25 • (1 hour 15 min.) • May 28 at 8 p.m., May 29 at 6 p.m. • Emmett Robinson Theater, Albert Simons Center, 54 St. Philip St. . • 579-3100