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BUTTERFLIES OF UGANDA ~ Greenway Court Theater ~ West Hollywood

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It's intermission. I'm searching the program for the name of the actress who plays Mary, mother to young Mercy, who implores her to go back in time and reveal the truths that are keeping them apart. "It is better to live with lies," repeats a traumatized Mary. I see a photo in the program but it's not her. The actress tonight must be an understudy. At the end of Butterflies of Uganda, I see a beautiful young woman with kind eyes in the lobby. I look again. "It's not you," I insist, "you can't be Mary." She smiles with the same smile I saw on the program. It wasn't an understudy who played Mary, it was Alvina Carroll. I stand there, confused. Alvina looks nothing like Mary whose eyes stayed open wide throughout the play as if permanently staring at the horrors she committed and witnessed as a child soldier.

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Adult Mary (Alvina Carroll, stooped), Victor (Kem Saunders) and Young Mary/Mercy (Nana Kagga-Hill). All production stills by Larry Mitchell.

In 2006, Writer/Director Darin Dahms and writing partner Soenke C. Weiss went to Uganda's Gulu Rehabilitation Center to listen to children soldiers tell their stories. Dahms and Weiss came back to the U.S. with a feeling of responsibility and decided to give voice to these children "who, like your children, just wanted to play and laugh."

Butterflies of Uganda's stylized set by James Eric and Victoria Bellocq looked gorgeous and commanding, with giant machine guns rising on both sides of the stage like trunks of steel on which no life can grow. Curiously, during the play they disappeared from view, their dryness overshadowed by the fire igniting each performance. What stood out was the large orbit which kept changing from a chilling red to an even more dispiriting blue. Seeking warmth and hope I stared at the ground and its deep orange hue which too quickly turned to blood. I could no more escape than the children soldiers.

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Mercy (Nana Kagga-Hill) playing Young Mary, and soldier (Andrew Nkuyahaga).

I cannot tell you the stories. They are unspeakable. Only Mary can. Just be thankful you just have to sit in the audience and listen, unlike Mary's daughter Mercy, who volunteers to play her mother's part in the past. Confronted to the moment of truth: You, like Mercy, will surely out of self-preservation quit and affirm to your mother, "This is the end for me." And you will probably wish your ears were cut off rather than hear your mother reply, "No, this is only the beginning," as she leads you back to the altar and puts a machete in your 12-year old hand.

Butterflies of Uganda is a meticulous and frightfully entertaining tale of children coerced into slaughter through terror. Master manipulator and leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, Joseph Kony (Anthony Salas) is the revengeful messenger of God who puts a spin on one of His Commandments: "I will kill no people. I will only kill bad people." Child soldiers Salome (Kenyetta Lethridge, as light as a bouncing gerbil, both childish and brutal), Patrick (a tormented Charles Michael) and Mary have their own way of coping, each with its own terrible price.

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Soldier (Andrew Nkuyahaga) teaching Patrick (Charles Michael) how to be strong.

The politics behind the civil war of Uganda take second place because of accents that were sometimes hard to understand, but also because the intensity of the emotions portrayed took precedent over facts and ideologies. Survivor Olive (played by Angela Bennett) is a gentle force of Hope. The permanent fanatic smile on Joseph Kony's face makes his sober moment of introspection twice as powerful. Carl Crudup and Kem Saunders not only play two characters (Crudup plays Mary's grandfather and David; Saunders plays Mary's father and Victor) but also play opposite ends of the spectrum: David being the children's angel; Victor, their demon. Disturbingly, they fulfill their mission with the same sense of conviction and power. Ayana Cahrr embodies Mary's mother, a wounded but resolute spirit torn apart between a desire to forgive and an unwillingness to forget--a difficult role no mother would ever want to play, let alone live. Tony Tambi, Paul Mahon, Andrew Nkuyahaga and Verton Banks add to the tension by keeping the children on their toes with the constant threat of violence about to erupt.

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Anthony Salas as Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army. 

With tremendous courage, actress Nana Kagga-Hill steps in the shoes of 12-year old soldier Mary in the past, and Mary's daughter Mercy in the present. Butterflies of Uganda asks, "why are we teaching our children to hate themselves?" The price we pay to use children as soldiers-- and ultimately the price of all wars (for all soldiers obey Kony's twisted Commandment)--is best measured by the look of unimaginable suffering on a 12-year old face (Kagga-Hill) and the shock and terror in her adult eyes (Alvina Carroll) at the thought of reliving the past. The least we can do is listen.

Butterflies of Uganda @ the Greenway Court Theater, Thursdays through Saturdays through October 13. $15-$25.00. Discounts available online at www.greenwayarts.org or call 323-655-7679 for more information and reservations.

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Drawings by children from the Gulu Rehabilitation Center are on sale at the Greenway Court Theater to benefit the Center.

Information on how to help stop the current genocide in Darfur can be found at www.stopgenocide.now.

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