The bottom line
Handing me a program and seeing my 13-year-old daughter in tow, the usher told us: “This is a musical, but a serious musical.” She’s right. My Heart Is the Drum, playing at Village Theatre in Issaquah and Everett, is a musical with great staging, costumes, music, dance and singing. It’s also a musical that ventures into tough issues like sex trafficking, prostitution and AIDS and grapples with the roles and rights of girls and women — all of which can make for terrific fodder for discussion with teens.
That said, the show is far from all dark with no light. Humor, and the indefatigable spirit of the main character, Efua, help leaven the experience of this world premiere. My teen said: “It’s intense and upsetting at times, but really good.”
Set in 2000 in the fictional rural village of Kafrona in Ghana, the protagonist, Efua Kuti, is determined to attend university in the capital, Accra, and become a teacher. But when economic hardship forces Efua (played by Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako, who won the 2015 Gregory Award for her performance in Book-It Rep’s Little Bee) to leave work on the family cotton farm, Efua rebels. (The musical number “Seeds, Dirt and Cotton,” where the laborer, Edward, tries to get Efua to follow his precise sorting method, is hilarious.)
Efua defies her father by abandoning the fields to turn in her essay for university entry to her teacher-mentor at school (a two-hour walk from the village). Exasperated by Efua’s lack of obedience and her headstrong ways, her father arranges a marriage for her that she does not want — to Edward. (Her father says Efua is a girl “who never shuts her mouth.”)
Meantime, Efua’s beloved cousin, Balinda, has been promised to a rich businessman in Accra who has dealings with Balinda’s father. Efua agrees to run away to Accra with Balinda and pursue her dreams of study. But things in Accra turn dark fast. Turns out Balinda’s betrothed, Caesar, just wants to add the girls to his existing collection of young women whom he markets to paying clients, calling the Balinda and Efua his “recently acquired items.”
These “items,” we learn, fetch a high price as many men believe the myth that having sex with a virgin can cure HIV/AIDS. The cousins are essentially auctioned off to men at a private party in a hotel. Some much-needed humor arrives when Edward comes to Accra to find the girls and has to battle his own imagination and fear of the city, repeating his mantra “I am Edward Adu, these are my hands, these are my legs” to avoid completely losing it in a crowded market. Meantime, one of Caesar’s workers decides to help the cousins plot an escape. Efua stands up to a client and tells him she is no longer a virgin though she has been marketed as such. As the client tells the other men at the party, Edward shows up to liberate the girls. The men attack Caesar for cheating them and stealing another man’s wife to boot. Efua realizes Edward still loves her despite her experience and she and Balinda return with Edward to Kafrona.
Throughout Act One, we hear villagers speak of somber (rather than the customary celebratory) funerals being held for young people with “wasting disease,” aka AIDS. (We hear funeral chants and see the actors looking out over the audience as if they are watching a procession.) In Act Two, we get to see one of these somber funerals, for Balinda. We next see Efua, who has made a life with Edward, graduate as university valedictorian. She returns to Kafrona as a teacher — at “The Belinda Dagumbo Academy of Learning.”
Parents should know
While we saw a handful of younger kids at the performance we attended, my daughter and I agreed that this show is probably best suited for mature middle-schoolers and older.
This show tackles many difficult issues, from sex trafficking to prostitution to AIDS. Parents considering taking their kids should know that several scenes include discussion and use of drugs to blunt the pain of exploitation. Sex is implied — with a few scenes taking place in a bedroom — but never shown. Characters talk about women’s virginity or lack thereof. Male characters get beaten by others in two scenes. There are instances of men being physically abusive to women (my daughter cringed during a scene where a man who has paid to have sex with Efua violently yanks her by her hair and slaps her).
Check out the performance preview guide for full information.
Village Theatre is holding a series of post-show “talkbacks” with local and international organizations (such as Seattle Against Slavery and the Washington Anti-Trafficking Response Network) on selected performance dates.
If you go ...
Where: Village Theatre is located at 303 Front St. N., Issaquah, Wash.
When: My Heart is the Drum plays through April 24 in Issaquah and from April 29-May 22 in Everett.
Length: The show runs two-and-a-half hours plus a 15-minute intermission.
Tickets: Call 425-392-2202 or buy online.
Parking: Plenty of street parking, all within a short walk to the theater.
Tips: You can pre-order desserts and (for adults) cocktails for the 15-minute intermission from the restaurant connecting to the theater, Fins Bistro. Bottled water, coffee, candy and trail mix are on offer in the lobby: cash only (have small bills ready). There are plenty of nearby Front Street eats and treats, including Domino’s Pizza, Levitate Gastropub, Forest Fairy Bakery and Yum-E Yogurt.