Timeline Theatre Presents CARDBOARD PIANO Review – Uganda Homophobia and Child Soldiers Exposé

Editor's Note:  The following review--similar to others where the Picture this Post reviewer's ranking is SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED -- has some details of plot turns that are potential spoilers for those planning to see this production.  These are included to help highlight strongpoints, per the Picture this Post WRITERS GUIDELINES .  

Timeline Theatre CARDBOARD PIANO
Chris (Kearstyn Keller, left), the daughter of American missionaries, and Adiel (Adia Alli), a local girl in Uganda, prepare to exchange vows in a secret ceremony. Photo: Justin Barbin

Two prayer scenes bookend CARDBOARD PIANO, defining it quickly—at least for this writer-- as having most appeal for those with strong religious sentiments and especially focused on religious grace. The action takes place in a church initially built by missionaries in Uganda. Thanks to the detailed scenic design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec, sound design by David Kelepha Samba, and lighting design by Brandon Wardell we do feel transported there. We hear the roof leak, we see the sparse church décor, we appreciate the African styled lamps that decorate the night.

Timeline Theatre mounts story about Uganda then and now

In the first scenes we witness the lesbian love and illicit marriage of the missionaries’ daughter (Chris played by Kearstyn Keller) to a local woman (Adiel played by Adia Alli), where the theme of Uganda’s homophobia is introduced. This is a wedding of their own design and a secret troth recorded with a tape recorder used as stand-in for witnesses.

Timeline Theatre CARDBOARD PIANO
A soldier (Kai A. Ealy) comes to the community's church looking for a runaway child soldier Photo: Lara Goetsch

The innocence of their Juliet and Juliet hidden love plays out against a menacing backdrop war being waged by the Lord’s Resistance Army. At times we cannot discern what is thunder and what is gunfire. A wounded 15-year old soldier on the lam (Pika, played by Freedom Martin) barges in the door compelling African-born Adiel to labor to save his life, while her new wife Chris simply wants to elope—her plan for the post-vow moments.

Then playwright Hansol Jung’s script detours its focus from homosexuality and homophobia in Uganda to Pika’s story of being a child soldier in the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army, and a segue commentary on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Project. For this writer, an initial worry that the treatment of the latter was verging on a childlike distillation that was borderline cringe worthy, was quickly supplanted by a profound appreciation of how the simplistic dialogue perfectly sets up the entrance of Pika’s bloodthirsty commander (played by Kai A. Ealy). In a flash the story moves from childlike innocence to murderous instincts and brutality unbound. It is a truly powerful moment that kicks you in the gut.

In this unleashed violence, Adiel is murdered and themes of homophobia again become center stage.

We then meet Chris many years later, returning to the church—the scene of the crime-- where Pika, who is now called Paul, is the minister, and he has a new wife, Ruth, also played by Alli. Curiously, Ealy is now cast as Paul, which gave this writer, as perhaps others, a mental whiplash like disorientation. Martin comes back to the stage as a young homosexual man, Francis.   Act II is about how these characters come to reconcile—or at least that is the premise.  However, for this writer, who is not oriented to religious frames on grace, the script seemed to add up to something less than compelling or real feeling.

Strong Performances

That said, there are some very strong performances in this production. Jung’s Act II gives the characters passionate moments to show their acting chops, and especially Ealy, who is clearly up to the task.   Mostly, for this writer, it is Martin’s portrayal of a wide-eyed and tortured child soldier in the first act that is totally arresting and for lovers of superb acting well worth putting CARDBOARD PIANO on their calendars.

Timeline Theatre CARDBOARD PIANO

This story may also have special resonance for students of history who know that at the time of this fictional CARDBOARD PIANO story—Manafort and Stone of today’s headlines were in the real-world trying to put a PR pretty face on Savimbi’s murderous exploitation of child soldiers in Angola. Alas the themes of this play are a continuing story on so many fronts…


Playwright: Hansol Jung

Director: Mechelle Moe

Cast: Adia Alli, Kai Ealy, Kearstyn Keller and Freedom Martin


Thru March 17:

Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m.

Fridays at 8 p.m.;

Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m.;

Sundays at 2 p.m.

Exceptions: Show time on Wednesday, March 6 is 8:30 p.m.

There is an added performance on Tuesday, March 12 at 7:30 p.m.

No shows on Saturday, January 19 at 4 p.m. and Friday, March 15


TimeLine Theatre

615 W. Wellington Ave.


Jeffrey D. Kmiec, Scenic Designer

Elle Erickson, Costume Designer

Brandon J. Wardell, Lighting Designer

David Kelepha Samba, Sound Designer

Amy Peter, Properties Designer);

Kristina Fluty, Intimacy Choreographer,

Eva Breneman, Dialect Designer

Jared Bellot, Dramaturg

Dina Spoerl, Lobby Designer


For tickets and information, visit the Timeline Theatre website

or call the TimeLine Box Office at (773) 281 - 8463 x6

Photos: Lara Goetsch, unless otherwise indicated

Note: Picture This Post reviews are excerpted by Theatre in Chicago


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