Souleymane Sy Savane

A rising African-born film star hits the stage.

OUT OF AFRICA Sy Savane gets ready for the boards.

OUT OF AFRICA Sy Savane gets ready for the boards. Photograph: Serge Nivelle

Tucked away in a quiet corner of the Theatre Row complex, wearing a BONGS NOT BOMBS T-shirt, Souleymane Sy Savane is fired up. The excitement isn’t just about his first stage role, in the U.S. premiere of Ian Bruce’s South African drama Groundswell, or the success of his first film, Ramin Bahrani’s indie charmer Goodbye Solo (2008), in which the newbie was cast as a Senegalese taxi driver who tries to talk an elderly passenger out of suicide. For this Ivory Coast native, the chance to discuss the dire situation in Africa—“what’s going on behind this black curtain,” as he puts it—arouses his passion as fervently as conversation about his promising career.

“I feel like maybe we need something like a Marshall Plan, when the U.S. really took it upon itself to build Europe back after World War II,” says Sy Savane. “Why not? So many people are suffering, and I don’t want to be accusatory, but [people have] been taking from this continent forever: men, wood, mineral, oil, everything.”

A similar question of responsibility—and who precisely should pay to balance the scales of justice in South Africa—pushes the three restless and rootless characters in the New Group’s pointed political drama to the edge. Johan (David Lansbury), a white ex-cop, and Thami, a black gardener (Sy Savane), think they may have found an investor to help them buy into a government-operated diamond-mining concession when retired white businessman Smith (Larry Bryggman) shows up at the remote guest lodge they maintain. An intense and dangerous pas de trois ensues as Bruce considers how much cooperation and cohabitation is possible amid the strife of postapartheid South Africa.

After playing the noble Solo (“he’s almost like Jesus times two”), Sy Savane likes inhabiting a role with a less sunny side and having the chance to play a substantial African character. He also sees traces of his homeland’s plight following independence from France in 1960 in the issues Groundswell raises. “Independence was going to be something so great, and then it comes, there’s no more of the white men, and things get worse,” says Sy Savane, his deep-accented voice rising with agitation. “You’re losing a common enemy, and things kind of fall apart.”

Two years before a civil war erupted in the Ivory Coast in 2002, Sy Savane set down in New York, achieving the dream he’d had since he was 13. He had worked as a runway model in Paris and Africa while applying for a visa, then saw an opportunity when he took a job as a flight attendant for Air Afrique. “They had to give me a visa because we used to fly to New York,” the actor explains.

Once here, he supported himself by walking dogs and working in Japanese restaurants as he learned English and studied acting. He initially found the intense internal concentration of the Method bewildering. “It wasn’t really working for me because in my upbringing we were not allowed to be by ourselves,” he says. “You grew up in a group. You have a room and everybody’s in there, so you don’t necessarily have the kind of intimacy that would [feed Method acting].”

Despite his lack of stage experience, Sy Savane won over Scott Elliott (who hadn’t seen Goodbye Solo), with the force of his audition. “He’s a really wonderful, vulnerable, emotional guy and actor,” says the director. “He showed an incredible amount of stageworthy charisma—big, open emotions—and it’s refreshing for everybody to have somebody who’s talented, if a little raw.”

With that rawness comes a conversational ease, even if Sy Savane is seasoned enough to not reveal his age. It may have something to do with the sudden turnaround of his fortune. He was working the lunch shift at Japonais when he got the call that he’d landed the film role two years ago. Then came the inevitable move to Los Angeles.

Regardless of which coast he calls home, living in this country has changed his view of his homeland. “When I was living in Africa, I didn’t know about African identity,” he reflects. “If we can see ourselves as Africans, we will stop seeing ourselves as Hutu and Tutsi, because there’s something bigger. When we have a common goal, it’s harder to fight each other.”

Groundswell is playing at the New Group @ Theatre Row.

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