Cultures collide in Theatre Nova’s production of "Death of a Driver"


Actors Jalen Wilson-Nelem and Sarah Stevens and chugging beer on stage.

Jalen Wilson-Nelem and Sarah Stevens do their best to communicate across the complicated landscape that is post-colonial Africa in the Michigan premiere of Will Snider's Death of a Driver. Photograph by Sean Carter Photography.

An ambitious, idealistic young American woman with an engineering degree comes to Kenya with a dream of building a four-lane highway and helping Kenyans move forward. She has financial support and encouragement from the Kenyan government but this is her first time in Africa and she has a lot to learn.

She’s hired a young Kenyan man to drive her and they quickly develop a friendship. She values his knowledge and he is offered a rare opportunity to be involved in the project.

This is the plot of Will Snider’s play Death of a Driver, an examination of just how complicated it is to communicate across the historic, cultural, and fiercely political landscape of post-colonial Africa. 

Theatre Nova is presenting the Michigan premiere of Snider’s one-act play through June 9. 

The engineer and her driver form a close bond. They like each other, they are attracted to each other but they are from two different worlds. Snider tells the story in a series for vignettes across 18 years from 2002 to 2020. 

The driver is amped up when he’s invited to have a key role in the engineer’s plan. He knows the terrain, physical and political. He thinks the strength of Africa is in the tribes, especially his tribe. He is skeptical that the central government will do anything for the people of Kenya. He knows about the bribes, the police crackdowns, and the constant concerns over the next meal, the next job, the next arrest. 

The play’s strength is in focusing on just these two people. Through them, we get a sense of two very different cultures and expectations. What begins as a warm-hearted, cross-cultural friendship grows darker as the years go by. The play becomes a bit repetitive with several jovial drinking scenes. It’s also unclear what Snider has to say about the African nations emerging out of colonial control and exploitation, though he does suggest the emotional toll that the African peoples endure through the distressed life of the driver.

Two fine actors bring this story to life, under the direction of Shelby R. Seeley.

Artwork for Theatre Nova's Death of a Driver poster. It shows a man driving a car, a woman in the passenger seat, and elephants out the front window.

Sarah Stevens plays Sarah from an over-eager and hard-driving engineer and entrepreneur to a disillusioned and shattered mature woman. The engineer is married, divorced, and married again. She is attracted to the driver, to his spirited love for Africa. She flirts, drinks, and shares her dreams with this person she thinks she knows. Stevens plays Sarah as game, ready to take risks, and tough enough to stand up to a harsh government. But as things change, she plays Sarah stoically, self-righteous, and still an outsider to the ways of Kenya.

Jalen Wilson-Nelem plays Kennedy, the driver. Nelem has the more flamboyant role and he makes the most of it. He gives Kennedy a richly musical accent (as Sarah notes, it's a bit of Africa and Oxford). He gives orations, his arms are always in movement, and he finds humor in everything. He has a wife and children but likes his time away. But he is fiercely protective in a dangerous political environment, Wilson-Nelem’s Kennedy is a person who you immediately like, and that’s important for what follows. When things go wrong, Wilson-Nelem draws on the inner rage that has always been lurking in the way Kennedy presents himself. 

The scenes near the end are powerful and the actors face off with two very divided emotional responses that encapsulate their relationship.

The small, intimate Theatre Nova stage is perfect for this play. A mostly spare space serves as both the low-rent bar where their relationship blossoms over several strong beers and a dank, dark jail cell.

Snider’s play reminds us that the unsettling wars in Israel and Ukraine and the ongoing skirmishes in Africa are complicated and determined by the histories, cultural expectations, and often ancient rivalries. 

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently the managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

"Death of a Driver" continues at 8 pm on Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 pm on Sundays through June 9 at Theatre Nova, 410 West Huron Street, Ann Arbor. For tickets, call 734-635-8450 or visit