At the start of "The Black Cockerel," Angolan rebel Jonas Savimbi is a man full of anti-communist conviction and pro-Savimbi ambition.
In 1985, as the head of Angola's The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), he's fighting a civil war against the Marxists, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). And he wants nothing else than to crush the MPLA and take over as president of Angola. Millions of dollars in American support and many millions more from the De Beers diamond empire have been flowing in his direction. American conservative interests are backing his play, among them Jack Abramoff (yes, that Jack Abramoff).
But his foreign secretary, Tito Chingunji, has a conscience. He keeps bringing up inconvenient issues such as Angolans' hunger and poverty, or UNITA's child soldiers.
Savimbi, Chingunji and Abramoff are the focal triad in Nigerian writer Ademola Bello's play, being presented for the last time tonight at Out North.
It's billed as a workshop production of a play in progress. The first act is fully staged, but because of ongoing revisions, the actors read Act II from scripts on music stands. The contrast, at least in Thursday's performance, was initially a bit jarring, but thanks to the performers, a few minutes was all it took for the second act to gel and become even more interesting and involving than the first.
The play begins at an anti-communist summit where Savimbi (Earl Smith), in splendid oratorical form, envisions a world free of communism.
Watching his speech is the American Abramoff (Stuart Matthews), who shares the rebel leader's anti-Marxism but has an ambition of his own: to get help from South Africa so he can make an action movie.
Caught between the two is the humanist Chingunji (Darren Williams). Savimbi demands that his reluctant official deal with the apartheid South African government; meanwhile, Abramoff suspects that Chingunji is the reason the conservative group Citizens for America has turned a cold shoulder toward him.
Then Chingunji's wife and three small children are abducted -- by the Marxist MPLA, Savimbi assures him at first before admitting the truth -- and he finds himself increasingly the target of Savimbi's bombast, bloodthirstiness and machinations.
The second act is set seven years later, Abramoff is back home being a lobbyist (still several years before the U.S. lobbying scandals and his prison sentence). The United States has cooled toward Savimbi. Angolan voters have derailed his presidential ambitions. Now he's depressed, paranoid and furious, taking out his rage on Chingunji, whose family is still being held hostage to ensure his cooperation.
The relationships play out on a set that's fairly spare: three walls, two doorways, two shuttered windows, a cafe table and chairs, and, placed beneath UNITA's black cockerel flag, Savimbi's office desk and chairs.
That spareness doesn't carry over to the script. Dense with politics, the play has to impart a great deal of information to audiences who may be ignorant of Angolan history. That it succeeds is due to Bello's strengths as a writer.
But that very density also causes the play's main difficulty. The dialogue, particularly Savimbi's, sometimes lapses into repetition and exposition. (There's no particular reason for Savimbi to announce his birth date, or to repeat something we already know: that Chingunji has three children.) As a result, Act I occasionally plods.
But the relationships carry it through.
Smith, Matthews and Williams, ably directed by Vivian Melde, handle their roles well. Smith uses his booming orator's voice to great effect while managing to embody an inner slyness along with Savimbi's bloody-minded ambition. With their more tempered deliveries, Matthews and Williams impart a sense that their characters are playing behind the scenes -- which, in a way, they are.
It's a bit puzzling why Bello has written into the play the brief, non-speaking role of a young guerilla fighter. Savimbi and Chingunji argue about Savimbi's use of child soldiers, and presumably the character is meant to reflect that, but Keon McMillan, although age 15, appears too old to make the point.
"The Black Cockerel" still needs some work, but on the whole it's an engaging couple of hours and the subject matter is good enough to make the effort worthwhile. If Bello can find a way to impart his information more seamlessly, that will help a great deal. Meanwhile, it's still worth watching as a peephole into a conflict that too few Americans know about. And those who stay for the post-play Q&A with the author and cast can learn even more.
Linda Billington is a local actor and playwright. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 257-4332.
By LINDA BILLINGTON