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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: February 23, 2016

‘Lost Boy Found at Whole Foods’ at Portland Stage explores refugee experience

Written by: Bob Keyes
"Lost Boy at Whole Foods"

Tyrone Davis Jr. and Mhari Sandoval in “Lost Boy at Whole Foods” Photo by Aaron Flacke

If Tammy Ryan were a painter, she would have cast the scene in brilliant colors: A black man, working in the produce section of Whole Foods, feeding a papaya to a white woman shopping in the aisles.

“In Africa, this was my favorite,” the young man told the woman.

“As he fed her the sample, it was like a painting in my head,” Ryan said. “The papaya was so orange and he was so black.”

But Ryan is not a painter. She is a playwright, so she wrote a play. “Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods” opens for previews Tuesday at Portland Stage Company.

A fairly new American play, it tells a contemporary story of a woman in Pittsburgh who befriends Gabriel in the produce section of Whole Foods. He’s one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of 20,000 young Sudanese refugees who were orphaned or displaced during the Sudanese Civil War a decade ago. About 4,000 of them ended up in the United States. Most of the refugees from Africa who come to Portland are from Somalia, according to the Catholic Charities of Maine. Fewer than a dozen Sudanese refugees resettle in Portland annually, according to agency statistics.

The woman, Christine, takes Gabriel in, then wards off the barbs of people who criticize her decision and question her motives. The play is about the complex family dynamic that evolves, and Christine’s efforts to find Gabriel’s birth mother and reunite them. It’s a story about people trying to make a difference in the world, and how helping others comes with great sacrifice. Ryan said, “Love and helping others and opening your heart is not a simple thing.”

"Lost Boy at Whole Foods"

Tyrone Davis Jr. in “Lost Boy at Whole Foods.” Photo by Aaron Flacke

Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director at Portland Stage, said the play appealed to her because of the immigration story. It is set in Pittsburgh, but “Lost Boy in Whole Foods” could easily be set Portland, she said. She and her team have scheduled readings and discussions to take the story on stage and apply it to real-world Portland. “I love it when art can catalyze discussion within our community and offer a way of seeing the world from a different perspective,” Stewart said. “I see it as a way of building bonds. The more we take time to understand each other, the better we can be at creating a world that works for all.”

More importantly, Stewart liked the play because of its humanity. Ryan writes about the challenge of helping others and the difficult nature of relationships between people who are trying to help and those who need help. Cultural conflicts and social disconnects make those relationships difficult, Stewart said. This play offers insight into what happens to families when they adopt. “We all have images of ‘happily ever after’ in our heads, but the reality is that it is a lot of hard slogging with no guarantee that you will end up where you had planned,” Stewart said.

The play had its first production in New Jersey in 2010, and the Pittsburgh Playhouse produced it in 2011. Ryan, who lives in Pittsburgh, won the 2012 Francesca Primus Prize of the American Theater Critics Association for the play. She hopes the current political dialogue surrounding immigration prompts other theaters to program it. The Omaha Community Playhouse will produce “Lost Boy” in the spring.

The play is personal for Ryan. In 2003, she was doing outreach work for a theater in Pittsburgh, and was asked to work with Sudanese refugees to give voice to their stories. She became attached to them as she learned more about their journey to America, the heartbreak of their lives and their efforts to survive.

A year later, while shopping at her local Whole Foods, Ryan witnessed the young man feeding the woman a papaya sample. She recognized the man as one of the actors from her project. She knew his story, and was struck by the juxtaposition that played out before her. Here was a young man, barely out of boyhood but very much a man, enticing customers at a pricey food market by talking about his experience growing up in Africa. His journey to America was one of starvation and deep suffering. Like many other Lost Boys, this one – his real-life name is Daniel – was lucky to get of Sudan and survive the journey across continents. Many did not, Ryan said.

“It was too much for me. I knew I had to write a play,” she said.

‘Lost Boy Found in Whole Foods’

WHEN: Previews at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, March 1-3; opens at 7:30 p.m. March 4; continues through March 20
WHERE: Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland
TICKETS: $32 to $47
INFO: 774-0465 or
RELATED: “Sacred Stories” by Color of Community, 6 p.m. March 15, Studio Theater at Portland Stage; $5. Stories of college-age asylum seekers,refugees and immigrants.During the run, Portland Stage will collect food for the Wayside Food Programs.

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