Casting Shadows in “54 Silhouettes”

Lead Article, Reviews

By Kia Standard
 
“It’s not pride. It’s not stubbornness. A man has to stand for something, believe in something. What would you do?” A Nigerian actor named Victor, played by Charles Etubiebi, speaks directly to his audience, and no one dares to look away. What would you do if you were offered the biggest opportunity of your lifetime? Victor is a struggling Nigerian actor who has been waiting for his big break in Hollywood. Then one day his agent Sonny Chouk asks him to meet at a nearby production office. Sonny has arranged for Victor to meet with some Hollywood heavyweights to discuss a role in an upcoming film. An American movie star’s name is attached to the project. It seems like a dream come true, until Victor finds out more about the script. The movie is called “Black Blood,” and it is a Nigerian war film complete with rebels, drug lords, and spies. The writer is named Larry Singer; “imagine a white guy directing a film about Africans.” Howard Flynn, the producer, is also white, and he has his own ideas about how Nigerians should be portrayed. Victor is conflicted about accepting the role because of the stereotypical depictions of Africans in the film.
 
Sonny pulls out “his bag of tricks” to convince Victor to accept the job. Well, truthfully Victor doesn’t need much convincing because he needs the money. However, once filming begins, Victor wonders what he has gotten himself into. A British Nigerian actor from Brighton is brought in to play the role of a drug lord general, opposite Victor’s character, a first lieutenant named Toby. When Victor questions the production team about his character’s motivation, and which Nigerian accent they want him to use, the producer tells him to “just speak African.” Each day, Victor swallows his pride while he tries to navigate the minefield between his given instructions and his principles. He comes to understand that if he continues to accept acting roles that portray Nigerians in a negative light, then he is part of the problem. He realizes, “Every man’s actions have a ripple effect.” Eventually, his internal conflict erupts into a physical one between himself and his colleagues, when he decides to quit the project. That’s when all hell breaks loose.
 
Charles Etubiebi is an adept storyteller; his raw and honest delivery captivates the audience from his very first sentence. “54 Silhouettes” feels like art imitating life, because Mr. Etubiebi perfectly channels the character of Victor. It feels as though we are watching Mr. Etubiebi’s personal tale. The actor is also a masterful mimic; he seamlessly transforms himself into the three other main characters by using tone, regional dialect, and linguistic rhythms. Each character is portrayed according to his own unique vocal pattern. The Nigerian cast members’ voices have a melodic flair, the British actor’s voice is short and clipped, and the American’s voices are flat and monotone. There are not enough stars or accolades to describe Mr. Etubiebi’s performance. Quite frankly, I was blown away.
 
In “54 Silhouettes,” playwright Africa Ukoh puts a human face on a universal dilemma, the struggle to honor one’s identity in a world where people of color are continuously marginalized. Victor is forced into an uncomfortable situation to find his own completeness. By the end of the play, Victor no longer stands in the shadow of how others perceive him. He is fully immersed in his own light. “54 Silhouettes” is a beautiful play that is both poetic and thought‑provoking. It is a play for everyone. Mr. Ukoh forces us to look directly at ourselves, in order to think about our own choices. The question is a simple one. So, what would you do?

 
54 Silhouettes
Performed by Charles Etubiebi
Written and Directed by Africa Ukah
November 20 at 7:30 PM
Photo: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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KIA STANDARD is a writer and musical theater performer, who has appeared in regional and international productions of “West Side Story,” “The King and​ I”, “Little Shop of Horrors,” and “Bubbling Brown Sugar.” She​ received an​ MA in Creative Writing/Nonfiction from The Johns Hopkins University, and has published articles and profiles for various talent magazines. Ms.​ Standard is currently working as a musical playwright.

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