Critic's Notebook: An All-Star Cast Performs 'The Children's Monologues' at Carnegie Hall

Children’s Monologues Cast -10 split- Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Carnegie Hall

Danny Boyle directed the one-night-only theatrical benefit with a starry cast that included Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Andrew Garfield, Catherine Zeta-Jones, James McAvoy, Susan Sarandon, Daveed Diggs and Trevor Noah.

Celebrated filmmaker Danny Boyle made his U.S. stage-directing debut Monday night at Carnegie Hall. And if you weren't there, you missed something special.

The occasion was The Children's Monologues, a one-night only theatrical event benefiting Dramatic Need, an organization devoted to bringing the creative arts to children in South Africa and Rwanda. The piece has previously been performed twice in London in productions featuring such performers as Benedict Cumberbatch, Nicole Kidman, Ben Kingsley, Eddie Redmayne, Kit Harington and Chiwetel Ejiofor, among many others.

The American debut was no less impressive; its starry ensemble a testament both to the worthy cause and to Boyle's industry clout. The Carnegie Hall cast included Jessica Chastain, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Anne Hathaway, Jason Alexander, Andrew Garfield, Sienna Miller, Susan Sarandon, Common, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, James McAvoy, Audra McDonald, Daniel Kaluuya, Sebastian Stan and Trevor Noah. Also among the ensemble were two Hamilton veterans, Daveed Diggs and Javier Munoz, and the program included musical performances by Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding, Tony winner Cynthia Erivo (The Color Purple), cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and British rapper Little Simz.

The evening was largely composed of monologues written by African children about memorable experiences in their lives. Alternately harrowing and joyful, the short pieces were adapted for the stage by a gallery of notable playwrights including Tom Stoppard, Lynn Nottage and Neil LaBute. The lineup also included the Via Vyndal Pantsula Dance Crew, in their first appearance outside South Africa, and the New York City Youth Ensemble. Kenny Leon, who directed the recent Broadway revivals of A Raisin in the Sun and Fences, served as co-director.

At the evening's beginning, executive producer Amber Sainsbury said of Boyle, "His accent may be impenetrable but his vision and creativity are palpable." After his own short introduction, Boyle took a seat in the front row, book in hand just in case any of the performers, who had only one day to rehearse, needed assistance.

It wasn't necessary. Although a couple of the actors occasionally resorted to scripts, most were fully prepared, delivering polished turns. While the nearly three-hour evening would have benefited from some pruning (these sorts of star-studded affairs always tend to go on too long), it was a powerfully emotional presentation that featured many highlights.

In It's the Little Things, Jason Alexander played a Catholic missionary counseling a young girl, named Innocent, who had been arrested for selling CDs. Goodness featured Jessica Chastain as a 13-year-old girl raped by her uncle, to whom she plaintively keeps referring as "my grandmother's son." Common played the title role in Ignatius, about a young man recently released from prison who goes around his neighborhood apologizing to those he's wronged. Audra McDonald brought down the house in Biyonse, in which the titular character reacts ecstatically to seeing footage of her American namesake for the first time. The six-time Tony winner proceeded to lead the well-heeled audience in a sing-along of "Halo," their arms waving high in the air.

Catherine Zeta-Jones in Sums demonstrated that she's spending too much time away from the stage. Playing a girl obsessed with math, she had the crowd in the palm of her hand. "Ask me a question!" Zeta-Jones repeatedly commanded various audience members, only to sternly, and amusingly, rebuke them when they had the temerity to respond. Andrew Garfield delivered a highly emotive turn in Loss, playing a teenager bullied by his father and his father's friend to force himself sexually on a young woman. Anne Hathaway closed the show with True Love, about a woman who learns her lover is cheating on her.

Not all of the pieces were effective, to be sure. But the evening, enhanced by animated projections and seamlessly put together by Boyle, delivered moving insights into the plight of South African children. It also made one wish it were possible to be in two places at once, since The Children's Monologues was also being performed the same night by an all-female cast at Johannesburg's famed Market Theater.