The renowned Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote 62 plays, most of which clearly expressed his edgy opinions about social, political and ethical issues. Among his strongly held beliefs, he was opposed to organized religion. As he said once, "I am an atheist, and I thank God for it!"
In 1932, Shaw wrote a short story about religion titled The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God, a work that ruffled some feathers and was banned in Ireland by the Board of Censors. Such a reaction was predictable since the girl asks lots of questions about God and rarely gets any satisfactory answers from her missionary teacher in "darkest Africa," or from the other religious or scientific luminaries she meets on her journey.
One wonders how a play on this subject might have turned out if GBS himself had penned it. But we do have a sense of how that might have turned out in the compact and energetic adaptation of Shaw's story by Lisa Codrington, now at Karamu House. This talented young, black playwright borrowed Shaw's title for her 75-minute play, which was first staged at The Shaw Festival in 2016, as part of their "Lunchtime Series."
As expertly directed by Nina Domingue, this American premiere of the script is a frequently involving and satisfying romp through Shavian wit and wisdom, highlighted by some intense and amusing performances. Even though too many lines are lost due to excess speed or swallowed words, the overall effect is bracing. At the end, you almost want them to call an intermission and do it all over again.
The play has a meta structure since it begins at the Shaw Festival in the present day, where the ghost of Shaw is warming up the audience with party hats and noisemakers. Shortly, we are plunged into Africa in the 1930s where the eponymous Black Girl is driving her teacher crazy with questions. The Missionary is actually packing her bags, ready to head back to England and away from this insatiable girl with all the queries such as, "Why would God make a world with good and bad, and not just all good?"
That begins a series of conversations the Girl has with a variety of people and animals. A black mamba snake has plenty to say, and soon the prophet Micah appears invoking God's instructions about doing justice and showing mercy. The religious all-star lineup continues as the Lord of Hosts shows up along with King Solomon, none other than the Almighty himself, and a guy who poses for artists as Christ on the cross.
Understandably, the girl is pretty confused, and that doesn't get any better when an expedition of scientists appears on a trek through Africa and starts sharing their knowledge, or lack thereof, with the Girl. This is not meant to be a serious exploration of religious thought (thank God), and it succeeds as well as it does thanks to the witty words provided by both Shaw and Codrington, and a production that is as pleasing to the eye as to the ear and mind.
Robert Branch pumps up the tempo early on as Shaw, then returns as the loud-mouthed Lord of Hosts and one of the scientists. Branch is an actor who always finds a way to be interesting, even when his choices verge on being a tad excessive. Also excellent is Prophet D. Seay, who plays three characters as Micah, Solomon and a physicist. Some of the other actors should take lessons from Seay, who manages to make his words clear and understandable, no matter the volume or pace.
Three other performers, who play just one role each, acquit themselves well. Kaila Benford is most amusing as a talking snake that was transformed from a rod (not a stick!), and Mary-Frances Renee Miller is effective as the Black Bearer, the go-fer attending to the white scientists. And the Girl is played with wide-eyed innocence and smiling curiosity by India Pierre-Ingram. This is poignant since we can sense the inevitable disappointment that awaits her at the end of her search.
The cast is rounded out by Samantha Cocco, Michael Head and Karl Toth, who each have moments that work. But at times they can't quite handle the production's challenges that require precise diction and an ability to modulate vocally.
Scenic and costumer designer Inda Blatch-Geib wraps the stage in African prints and provides the characters with a colorful range of duds that go a long way to indicate the multiple characters on stage. The lush lighting design by Marcus Dana, and Rob Peck's well-tuned sound design, make Karamu's arena stage an ideal venue for this small but impactful play.
It's a good bet that Shaw would have been delighted that two young black women, Codrington and Domingue, would have joined him in taking religious presumption to the woodshed. As he once noted, "Churches must learn humility as well as teach it."