As a struggling young actor in the midst of an early-life crisis, Rick Gray did what anyone would do: He joined the Peace Corps. Okay, so maybe that's not what your anyone might do. But Gray wasn't your average guy; he was a man obsessed. As those who saw his excellent one man show The Impossible Safari learned last year, it was frustration, burnout, and his preoccupation with a Biblical verse that led him to Kenya, where he had adventures that are the stuff of movies and came out with at least some of the insight that he had been searching for.
In his new show, a surrealist play called Kariuki's Notebook, Gray has focused his attention on his work as an English teacher with the Peace Corps. An idealistic young man named John Wolfe (i.e. Rick Gray), played marvelously by David L. Townsend, won't stop fighting when the school where he teaches the children of Ol Kalou is shut down so that the area can be turned into a bar for tourists. A half-crazed American doctor (Christopher Roberts) and a British game warden (John-Charles Kelly) go to great lengths to get rid of John but, even after he is finally sent home, John can't forget his students and all that they taught him.
The Kariuki of the title is a precocious young Kikuyu boy, one of John's most accomplished pupils; his notebook is full of stories written in the English that John taught him. Kariuki and his friends find that not only has their school become a tourist attraction, but so have they: The British colonials keep them dressed up in traditional African robes to make them appear more like the "natives" that Westerners are used to seeing in National Geographic. One such tourist, a flaky soap opera actress named Leona Green (played to perfection by Corinne Edgerly), starts out as part of the problem but later becomes the kids' benefactor as she is charmed by their own style of acting and the stories they tell from Kariuki's notebook.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Kariuki's Notebook, an intriguing if imperfect effort by Gray, is that it doesn't spend much time on the teacher, John Wolfe. Maybe Gray got whatever narcissism he might have had out of his system with his one-man show but, as a result, the new effort seems to lack focus. At the start, we think the play will be about John's crusade. By the end, we understand that the teacher was forever changed by his time in Kenya -- but, through much of the play, he is either absent or running around in a completely doped up state. Funny at first, the latter situation quickly loses comic steam, as do the scenes with the doctor and the game warden.
This show really belongs to the kids: an ensemble of nine wonderfully talented young performers led by the charming Robert Lee Taylor as Kariuki. While we unfortunately never quite get the chance to see them through John's eyes, their interactions with Leona help us to understand why he was so passionate about them. The children speak, sing, and dance to dramatize enchanting tales, which -- as the author's note in the program indicates -- came from Gray's own students at Salient Secondary School in Ol Kalou. When they're working their magic on stage, it's hard to care about deficiencies in the play's structure.
Hopefully, Gray will spend some time reworking this story. It's rich stuff, and the heart of the piece is there. Some sharpening of dialogue and more focus in the narrative could make Kariuki's Notebook the exploration of language and culture that it aspires to be.