The world premiére of “Death of a Driver,” a riveting new play by Will Snider presented by Urban Stages, is worth making the frigid trek to the tundra of midtown Manhattan. Truly.
Once settled into the cozy theatre, your view is of a bare, raised platform stage, a few mustardy-yellow plastic crates, with several brown beer bottles lined up on the floor. That’s it; the set for an enactment of an intricate, complicated 18-year history between two radically different people.
Sarah (Sarah Baskin, excellent in a complex, difficult part) a prickly, white American woman, has arrived in Kenya ostensibly to build roads. She is tired of being under a man’s thumb and as an engineer, can create her own company and be the boss. She says the roads will “make everything better.” Sarah has immediately diagnosed Kenya’s problem as “poverty” because she has studied this; her arrogance overlooks the fact that the person she ended up spending up most of the day with, a cab driver named Kennedy (Patrick Ssenjovu, sensational) actually is Kenyan. As they drink a few beers – he Heineken and she an African version – Kennedy tries to tell her the problem is tribalism, and she ignores him. She knows better.
Sarah hires Kennedy as her “fixer,” on a trial basis, and he soon becomes her manager. He puts up flyers and finds men to build the roads, finds her a place to live, and promises her security. He is her contact to all things local. And it all goes well, to begin with. Kennedy marries. The Gates’ Foundation invests money in Sarah’s roads. But once there is an election and Sarah’s company is compelled to work with a corrupt government, Kennedy’s dazzling smile and easygoing personality belie a political soul who is intent on fighting back in whatever way he sees fit. It is, he says, “A necessary evil.” And this becomes a problem.
Over time, Sarah and Kennedy build a friendship: they talk about their love lives, sex, “spare tires,” which I will not spoil by explanation. But something Kennedy repeats is “We are together,” like a mantra, like a hopeful plea rather than a statement. Because realistically, how can this be possible – “We are together” – when one is investing in fighting for his people to save his country and the other is invested in the country for personal gain?
The structure of this play is deceptively simple. There are only seven scenes. The very fine original music is by Abou Lion Diarra. The clever set design, by Frank J. Olivia, which doubles as a bar and a prison, is also simple. But the relationship between these two characters is anything but simple, and, as sensitively directed by Kim T. Sharp, speaks to larger themes of the motives of those who “do good,” colonialism, and the vast gulf between one who has come from a land of plenty to solve the “problem” though she never realizes exactly what that problem is, and one who tries to solve the problems at hand because the alternative for him is to give up, lie down, and die.