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BWW Review: Timely CARTOGRAPHY at Kennedy Center

BWW Review: Timely CARTOGRAPHY at Kennedy Center
Photo: CARTOGRAPHY cast; courtesy of the production via the Kennedy Center website

Conceived and created by Kaneza Schaal (direction) and Christopher Myers (text and direction), Cartography is the latest offering from Kennedy Center's Theater for Young Audiences division, which invites us to go on a journey with five young people from all corners of the globes as they seek asylum. The focus of this timely piece is on the "in between" - that is, navigating border crossings (and the slew of paperwork and interviews that accompany them, not to mention all of the waiting) after leaving home, but before (hopefully) transitioning to life in an entirely new setting, which is also fraught with challenges. This experience of being in transition brings physical and emotional strife, but also sparks hope and determination in each person.

The characters' journeys depicted in the show are highly specific and since they are more than likely filled with challenges many of the audience members have never experienced, the theater piece offers an important learning opportunity. At the same time, it also explores universal themes. The creators and the likeable and earnest collaborator-performers (Janice Amaya, Noor Hamdi, Victoria Nassif, Vuyo Sotashe, and Malaika Uwamahoro) use the concept of a map to bridge the divide between the familiar and unfamiliar. While the asylum-seekers use paper and cellphone-based maps to figure out where they need to go to complete their arduous journeys, they share the idea that everyone's life is essentially a map. Sometimes it's easy to get from point A to point B, but more than likely there will be twists and turns. Our map (or concept of where we are going in life/where we want to go) is likely to be redrawn many times, but we all have one.

Overall, this show benefits from a solid thematic foundation and compelling stories, but suffers in the area of presentation. Minimal production values are fitting for a story about making something out of nothing, but some of the technical design choices (and - in some cases - potentially the execution of them) result in a production that is quite disjointed, not particularly cohesive, and nearly lacking in any semblance of smooth transitions.

Utilitarian cardboard boxes are used to depict physical barriers, whether concrete or liquid. A solid design concept for sure, but because the actors have to move them around a lot, the scene transitions can be more than a little tedious. Percussion-heavy sound elements (Anthony Fertel Dean) are cued during these transitions and serve as "cover," but they don't add much of anything else. Sound elements are not effectively used to convey any sort of intensity or change in mood since they seem to stand apart from other elements of the presentation, including the narrative. The projection and lighting elements (Chelsie McPhilimy) are a little better integrated - at least conceptually.

Perhaps the most obvious example of flawed design choices is essentially stopping the show (on purpose) to encourage audience members to turn on their cellphones, log on to a Wi-Fi network, and "map" their own journey or that of their parents. The results are represented real time on a map that's projected on the cardboard boxes onstage. Certainly, this opportunity for audience participation reinforces the universal message of the show. However, the decision to essentially drop the narrative at this point in the show, employ the performers to assist audiences with using the technology, and then return (somewhat jarringly) to a more traditional theater piece is an example of the cost outweighing the benefit because the interactive element comes seemingly out of nowhere and is more than a little disruptive.

Nonetheless, I applaud Kennedy Center for presenting a show on a timely and important issue.

Running Time: About sixty minutes with no intermission.

CARTOGRAPHY plays at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' Family Theater - 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - through January 13, 2019. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.

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