Most people don’t like to be reminded outright of the trouble in the world around them, even if everything is crumbling to the ground. As long as they aren’t being hit with the debris, most people won’t even acknowledge it’s there. At its core that is one of the things that theatre is about, forcing an audience to witness, through the eyes of the play, the trouble that exists in the world every day. This is why Onaje is such an important piece of theatre. It tells a tragic story of riots, racism, and hate that, although it is set in both 1967 and 1980, is unfortunately still very relevant.
Onaje tells the story of a young African-American hitchhiker named Onaje (played by Curtis M. Jackson), who gets picked up on the highway in Reno by a white couple on the run. Through conversations of mutual fears, doubts, angers, and a shared home, the three become a unit and we get to witness their journey back home both literally and metaphorically. The play also takes us back in time from 1980 to 1967 to the time of the riots in Cambridge. We get to see this event through the eyes of Onaje and his family as well as the tragic story of how he became who he was.
Despite the tragedy in the subject matter, Onaje brilliantly brings a sense of warmth to an otherwise cold situation. There is a tremendous sense of family and community for the trio of travelers, for Onaje’s family, for the town, and for the country. It’s a story about family and what they do for each other, no matter how much it hurts them. It’s about hope for their own lives, for forgiveness, and for the human race. These are ideas that anyone can find a connection to. Then when the ideas that some people might feel a little far away from come up, they are much more likely to want to hear and understand because they are already thoroughly invested. This is what change in the theatre is all about, and Onaje does it beautifully.
Onaje boasts an incredibly talented cast. This includes Curtis M. Jackson as Onaje, who was thrilling the whole way through, letting us feel the weight of all that he has been through as well as the determination of someone willing to fight for a change. Other standouts include Adam Couperthwaite and Sheila Joon Ostadazim as Richard and Belle, the other two in the trio. Working off of each other as well as Jackson beautifully, these two bring incredible depth to two people trying to figure out the strange hitchhiker they just encountered.
Onaje is a beautifully written, directed, and acted play that left me crying in the theatre by the end. It’s a call for change. It’s a reminder of the past. It’s a play about love and hate. In short, it’s theatre.