OU’s Charles Smith Tells Story of Refugee in ‘Objects in the Mirror’

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In late April, Charles Smith’s Objects in the Mirror opened in the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

Detailing the emotional, psychological, (and memories of the physical) journey of a refugee from Liberia, the work has been lauded by the Chicago Sun-Times, The Chicago Tribune, and other media outlets.

Smith is the head of the professional playwriting program at Ohio University, and his work has been performed all over the world.

He first came to Ohio University after leaving a position at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL.

“I had been under a series of one year contracts and was interested in something a little more permanent,” said Smith in an interview on a balmy afternoon in mid-May, some weeks after Objects in the Mirror’s premiere. “My wife and I had just had a baby, and we intended to just stay here until she was in kindergarten. That was 22 years ago.”

“Even though I enjoy the playwriting program here, and I have been able to make some changes in the program and make it into something that I am happy with, what I was even happier with was the quality of life (in Athens),” he said. “I thought that taking a fulltime teaching job would cut down on the amount of creative work I was able to do as a playwright. But moving here actually increased my output. In Chicago, I was spending a lot of time in the car and on public transportation. In Athens, I got all that time back.”

Smith said Objects in the Mirror, which focuses on protagonist Shedrick Yarkpai, is directly based on the story of an actor who was a part of the 2009 production of his Joseph Jefferson and John W. Schmid Award for Outstanding New Work-winning play Free Man of Color in Adelaide, Australia.

It wouldn’t be until a return trip to Australia the following year that Smith would get to know the actor in more detail, learning his harrowing life story as a refugee making his way through war-torn Africa until he was finally relocated in Australia.

“As I was listening to his story, I thought that it would make a spectacular play,” said Smith. “So I asked him if I could write it, and he graciously agreed.”

Smith said that he sent a draft of Objects in the Mirror to the actor after it was completed to make sure that he was comfortable with the theatrical depiction of his journey.

“He read it, he liked it, and so I sent it to the Goodman and asked for a reading,” said Smith.

“For Shedrick, the question becomes whether or not you can continue to use the same techniques to survive. When you’re living in a refugee camp, you develop certain skills – and then you are transported to this land where you don’t have to worry about the safety of your body, about being killed or maimed or butchered. All of a sudden you’re in this place where there are gelato shops,” said Smith. “You have to question how you’re going to develop a new set of tools, because the survival skills you developed in a refugee camp will not work for you on the beach in Adelaide.”

Yarkpai is also haunted by questions of what he should do as a survivor.

“After you survive, do you have a responsibility to help those who didn’t get out?” said Smith. “He’s also facing a crisis of identity. Is he Australian? Liberian? Ghanaian? I think he would say that he is a Liberian living in Australia – but there is a real crisis of identity there.”

Objects in the Mirror is at the Goodman Theatre through June 4.