‘Who’s Your Daddy?’
Written and performed by Johnny O’Callaghan
Directed by Tom Ormeny
Produced by Maria Gobetti and Georganne Aldrich Heller
The Little Victory Theatre, Los Angeles
Nov. 11-Dec. 18, 2011
A one-person play can be the theatrical equivalent of a tightrope act high above the circus floor – difficult, if not dangerous, to pull off but engaging, even riveting, if successful. At a minimum, it compels respect for the performer’s courage in attempting such a feat.
Johnny O’Callaghan earns much more than simple respect, however, for his tale of an African adventure that began as a lark 10 years ago, but soon became a mission and eventually a life-altering experience for him. When asked by a friend, a filmmaker, to help her shoot a documentary about an AIDS orphanage in Uganda, O’Callaghan — then “between engagements,” as actors call unemployment — readily agreed.
“I figured if I got stepped on by an elephant,” he explains early in the play, “it’d be tough luck for me but even tougher luck for American Express trying to collect what I’d charged for the trip.”
And what a trip it is. It takes two days of international flights for O’Callaghan and Ellen-Ray Hennessy (the filmmaker friend) just to get to Kampala, the Ugandan capital, and then a bone-aching 10-hour drive to Kasese, in West Uganda, where the orphanage is located. There, they find roughly 50 children, all orphans of parents dead from AIDS, wearing tattered rags, surviving on one godawful meal a day and being cared for by one woman.
In the crush of these children, O’Callaghan finds a 3-year-old boy named Benson (or perhaps Benson finds him) who climbs onto his lap, wipes his runny nose on O’Callaghan’s sleeve and touches his heart. It’s not long after that O’Callaghan finds himself looking at the child and saying to himself: “That’s my son!”
And so it begins — O’Callaghan, an openly gay Irish-American-Canadian, sets out to adopt Benson, bring him to the United States and raise the boy as his own. But it’s a long, twisting and frustrating path between impulse and success and the telling of that path is the gravitational center of “Who’s Your Daddy?”
A solo performer must provide all the elements of his or her play — its narrative, tensions, setbacks, triumphs both small and large, and, of course, the characters who figure prominently in the tale. O’Callaghan excels at pulling it altogether and making the unseen “others” as real as if they were on-stage with him.
There’s Ms. Hennessy, for example, indelibly characterized by O’Callaghan’s quick up-and-down flip of his T-shirt (apparently she enjoys getting her ya-yas out); the Ugandan judge who punctuates his responses to the adoption proceeding with basso-profondo “hmmmms;” the American consul officer in Kampala who expedites the little boy’s visa application; the oily Ugandan businessman who spends a lot of time in Canada raising just enough funds to sustain the orphanage but more than enough to sustain his cattle farm in a nearby village; the writer-actor’s skeptical family in Ireland, reached by phone (O’Callaghan makes you smell the smoke from the ever-present cigarette in his mother’s hand); the cheerful L.A. social worker who approves O’Callaghan’s residence and care the little boy would be receiving; and, of course, the boy himself and his tiny chick’s peep of “yes” to all questions put to him.
Turns out “yes” is the only English word he then knows. Almost seven years later, Benson — now renamed Odin — knows a great deal about a great many American things. Even more so, he knows the love and guidance of a mother-and-father rolled into one.
In conjuring up his now-adopted son and all those unseen others, O’Callaghan slides, glides, jumps, staggers, hops, crouches, about a simple but evocative set (for anyone who has ever been to African back-country) of a hut with corrugated plastic roofing, a skeletal tree and several large boulders. Credit Lucan Melkonian for the design and Carol Doehring for the subtle lighting.
Tom Ormeny seems to have had an easy time directing this play — after all, he was dealing with a cast of one — but then again that “one” is a fine performer who not only wrote the story but also knows it intimately and tells it with truth and deep emotion. To hear O’Callaghan tell it in his lightly-tinted Irish inflection, you want to say: “Ahh, Johnny, we do know ye!”