Patrick Ssenjovu and Sarah Baskin in ‘Death of a Driver.’ (Photo: Ben Hider)
By Samuel L. Leiter
Will Snider’s Death of a Driver, now at Urban Stages, is a drama about the interracial friendship of Sarah (Sarah Baskin), an American engineer and Kennedy (Patrick J. Ssenjovu), a Kenyan taxi driver. Like the road Sarah seeks to improve, it’ll get you from here to there but watch out for the potholes.
According to his bio, Snider earned his BA by specializing in post-colonial East African political history, and, before turning to playwriting, spent three years “working in agricultural microfinance in Kenya and Ethiopia.”
He uses this background in Death of a Driver, a two-actor, seven-scene work alternating between a rural Kenyan bar and jail cell from 2002 to 2020. At the start, Sarah is a tough, no-nonsense 26-year-old, engineering grad student. She’s come to Kenya to check out the lay of the land before launching an award-winning project to build a first-class highway over a rundown country road. She believes Kenya’s poverty can be alleviated by the prosperity such projects often create.
Kennedy is the carefree, 21-year-old, Shania Twain-loving driver who’s been chauffeuring Sarah around all week. His capabilities are so evident that, as they down beer after beer while celebrating his having gotten them out of trouble after hitting a goat, Sarah offers him a position with her budding company. Kennedy also happens to belong to the Luo, while the government has long been under the oppressive control of the Kikuyu. Kennedy and Sarah whisper, “Fuck the government.”
As the years pass and countless beers are guzzled, the company succeeds and the odd couple’s friendship grows. Snider also explores Kennedy’s anti-Kikuyu activism in the wake of their streak of presidency wins, and the increasingly dire incarcerations he experiences for his troubles.
We learn of Kennedy’s marriage, children, and mistress (the “spare tire” he, like his forebears, finds necessary); of Sarah’s troubled romance with a Brit; and even of Kennedy and Sarah’s sex lives. Most important is Sarah’s insistence that her business not become implicated in politics, particularly as she chooses to cultivate rather than offend the government, especially with regard to violence.
This, however, is a road Kennedy has difficulty navigating, and Sarah eventually finds it difficult to call what exists between them friendship. The postscript-like final scene, set in the near future, jars when it introduces another taxi driver, also played by Ssenjovu. Despite his different clothes, it takes a moment to realize his connection to the play’s title.
For all its emphasis on Kenyan politics, there’s little here that, with a few tweaks, would prevent the play from being set in any third-world country. The debate over the standards foreign companies must follow when dealing with crooked governments (who will take credit for the foreigners’ work anyway) is a universal one about which Snider offers little enlightenment.
More promising, emotionally, at least, is his treatment of Sarah and Kennedy’s friendship, whose fragility is endangered not only by their different colors but by the forces of business and politics. It’s a promise, though, that the play’s talky, episodic, time-spanning, mostly actionless plot never quite fulfills.
Snider’s script provides notes on every aspect of production, from the visual look to the acting, which, despite its lack of fire, he styles as fast-paced “pyrotechnic realism.” The performances, though, are not notably different from what you’d find in any similar drama.
Snider also insists there be no signs indicating the passing years, although they’re listed in the program. Since the costumes (by Gail Hecht-Cooper) remain the same, this only makes it impossible to tell when anything is happening. It’s a realistic play so why make it harder to follow?
Director Kim T. Sharp follows Snider’s instructions to keep the set as simple as possible, so designer Vincent Scott gives us a neutral upstage screen, a latticework ceiling, a raised platform with milk cartons serving as furniture, and a perimeter for Sarah to wander when the platform becomes a cell. Frank J. Oliva’s lighting helps greatly to clarify the spatial arrangements.
Sharp’s staging sometimes lacks focus, including his allowing Sarah too frequently to gaze off into the distance. Both actors are strong, but Baskin could sharpen the contrast between Sarah’s thick skin and her sensitivity, while Ssenjovu’s heavy Ugandan accent is difficult to understand in a theatrical setting.
There are some good things in Death of a Driver but you ride at your own risk.
Death of a Driver
259 W. 30th St., NYC
Through March 24
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.