Sojourn Theatre does some of the most ambitious work in town, and with their new site-specific work Throwing Bones, the ante is higher than ever. The show sounds a little random, if not downright woo-woo: South African healing traditions? Portland? Health care? There will be dancing?
The show is based on research conducted in South Africa by guest director Maureen Towey. South Africa has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world, and health care is provided both by doctors and by sangomas, or traditional faith healers.
Throwing Bones begins as a loose assemblage of dances, monologues, and scenes that jump from South Africa to Portland. Dr. Gordan (James Hart) is a doctor from Michigan doing a three-year stint at an AIDS clinic in South Africa. Noni (Kimberly Howard) is one of his patients, and is also an AIDS relief worker herself. Tata (Victor Mack) is a sangoma, and it is to him that Cara (Hannah Treuhaft), a white South African, goes when afflicted with a sickness that no Western medicine can explain.
There is enough cultural and medical cross-pollination here to write a dissertation, and throwing two more characters into the fray initially seems forced. Portlander Agatha (Gretchen Corbett) goes to South Africa after her daughter, Kelly (Courtney Davis), dies from cystic fibrosis. Why would a Portlander go to South Africa in order to cope with her grief?
The explanation, when it comes, feels a bit facile, but the show's evocation of the culturally prescribed rituals and expectations surrounding mortality is so astute that plot points almost cease to matter: Agatha brings her grief and skepticism to South Africa so that Westerners can see their own beliefs refracted through the lens of another culture.
The show is heavily dance and rhythm based, and there are beautiful images here, as characters frantically try to control and delineate the human body, and bodies just keep eluding their efforts. Throwing Bones defies expectations at every turn, treading on the sensitive territory of mortality and culture with unfailing intelligence and a candor that's both startling and welcome.