The Play 'Objects In The Mirror' Was Inspired By A Real Refugee's Shakespearean Dilemma Shedrick Yarkpai escaped war-torn Liberia under an assumed name, which he kept as he started a new life in Australia. Objects in the Mirror follows Yarkpai's struggle to reclaim his identity.

This Play Was Inspired By A Real Refugee's Shakespearean Dilemma

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A new play at Chicago's Goodman Theatre seems ripped from the headlines. A young man escapes a deadly civil war then confronts new dangers in the country where he's found shelter. "Objects In The Mirror" is based on the true story of Shedrick Yarkpai, a young actor who escaped Liberia during war and settled in Australia. From member station WBEZ Dan Weissmann has the story.

DAN WEISSMANN, BYLINE: American playwright Charles Smith met Shedrick Yarkpai when a theater company in Adelaide, Australia produced two of Smith's plays with Yarkpai in the lead. Smith traveled to see the productions. Afterwards, he went to lunch with Yarkpai and the theatre's artistic director, Rob Croser. Here's how Smith and Yarkpai remember it.


CHARLES SMITH: Rob and Shedrick and I sat down, and we were having lunch.

SHEDRICK YARKPAI: And then Rob said to me, say it.

SMITH: And Shedrick said, well, I have something to tell you.

YARKPAI: I started telling Charles my story.

WEISSMANN: His escape from Liberia and the crushing questions he still faced.


SMITH: I was just amazed by it. I was just blown away. I said to him, I would like to write this.

YARKPAI: And I didn't say a word.

SMITH: I think he cried. And I cried (laughter). And we took off from there.

WEISSMANN: The play is about identity, the danger of telling the truth and of concealing it. In the first act, Shedrick tells a friend, a sympathetic lawyer, about his harrowing escape and the baggage that weighs him down. He came to Australia under someone else's name - a cousin who died in the war.


DANIEL KYRI: (As Shedrick Yarkpai) I lied to the government and that makes me a criminal. And every day I lie, I sink deeper and deeper. And now I am drowning, Mr. Rob.

WEISSMANN: The lawyer offers to help Shedrick correct the record. But Shedrick's Uncle John has grave concerns. He risked his own life and orchestrated multiple lies to get the family out.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Uncle John) You think the danger is behind us, that it's in the past, but it's not that far behind us, Zaza. The objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.

WEISSMANN: He reminds Shedrick, whom he carefully addresses by his fake name, that he can't leave behind the social reality of race.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Uncle John) You will always be one of two things in the world, either a commodity or a liability. There is no in-between.

WEISSMANN: Uncle John flat out forbids Shedrick to move forward with reclaiming his given name.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Uncle John) As you're father, I forbid you.

KYRI: (As Shedrick Yarkpai) You're not my father.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Uncle John) I saved your life.

KYRI: (As Shedrick Yarkpai) And what good is my life without me?

WEISSMANN: Playwright Charles Smith says it was Shedrick Yarkpai's account of this exchange that sparked "Objects In The Mirror."


SMITH: And in my head, I heard Shedrick's response. And the response was, well, what good is my life without me? And I thought this is just an incredible decision. It's a Shakespearean decision.

WEISSMANN: It's been eight years since Smith heard this story. The Goodman Theatre had hoped to bring Shedrick Yarkpai to Chicago for the opening.


YARKPAI: You know, especially traveling at this time to the United States is not as easy.

WEISSMANN: In putting together his visa application, Yarkpai discovered that some documents from when he arrived in Australia still showed the name he had used to enter. Speaking from a studio in Australia, Yarkpai says he commiserated with theatre director Rob Croser.


YARKPAI: I told Rob, I said, look, I think I would've just stuck with the identity I came with. Then this would've been easier. He started laughing about it, you know? But it wasn't fun.

WEISSMANN: In the end, it was Croser who traveled to Chicago to see the premiere at the Goodman Theatre.


ROB CROSER: I found it one of the most emotional experiences that I've undergone in a long, long time.

WEISSMANN: Croser saw a version of himself on stage as the lawyer who helped Shedrick straighten out his identity. That's a role he played in real life. Croser earned his living as a lawyer, running the theater in his spare time. But "Objects In The Mirror" complicates his role. In Act 2, Shedrick's Uncle John accuses the lawyer of trying to steal the young man he calls his son.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Uncle John) Your white skin and your governmental position does not give you the right to take a man's son away simply because you believe you can give him a better life.

WEISSMANN: On opening night, some people in the audience applauded that speech. The next day, Rob Croser and Charles Smith debriefed.


CROSER: I found that quite confronting, I've got to say.

SMITH: You know, Rob, I think there are a lot of audiences who agree with you. And I think there are a lot of people who had your response to that and purposely so.


SMITH: Shakespeare wrote a play, and there is a speech, to be or not to be. I think that scene is a to-be-or-not-to-be scene. And if we knew whether or not we should be or not be and it was an easy choice, then, you know, there's nothing for us to do. We might as well go home. We continue to watch because we said, boy, this is difficult.

WEISSMANN: And you don't have to be a Danish prince or a Liberian refugee for that difficulty to hit home. For NPR News, I'm Dan Weissmann in Chicago.

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