By Jim Rutter

For THE INQUIRER

Richard Bean's The God Botherers pokes fun at British aid workers struggling against their own western biases and values to effect change in Muslim Africa.

Emma Goidel's A Knee That Can Bend takes a more serious approach to a similar problem: the rights (not to mention, the mere existence of) lesbians in Senegal, a Muslim-ruled country where they cannot live openly. Director Kittson O'Neill's staging at Orbiter 3 Productions gives full voice to Goidel's thoughtful, mature and intellectually provocative work.

Kate (Anna Zaida Szapiro) wants to speak authentically. Wants to get into a good grad school. Like many young people her age, she's very ambitious about effecting social justice (like a god botherer, wherever she can effect it), and very blind to her own self-interest.

She travels to Senegal as part of an undergrad immersion program, there to write an ethnography (sociological field study) that could have practical, rather than mere academic application. Kate's also gay, and wants, respectably, if self-interestedly, to give women (in Muslim Africa, mind you) the same freedoms of living openly that she, a white, non-poor woman enjoys in America.

There, she meets Aicha (Jennifer Kidwell), Nene (Candace Moore), and Mareme (Danielle Leneé in multiple roles) on a basketball court (costume designer Jillian Keys' provides some nice, subtle touches of Western values at work in the basketball shoes and Coca-Cola t-shirt).  These three young women live double lives: lesbians in secret, mostly "good Muslim girls" in public.

When Kate's ambition infects her romantic desires, she gives dramatic life to a road to hell paved with good intentions.

Thematically, Goidel's play touches upon a number of issues. Like Carol Churchill, she interweaves sexual and gender fluidity into both the plot and ideas, and like Tom Stoppard's The Invention of Love, she touches upon the effect of language in setting discourse. Kate remarks hearing "that there's no word for lesbian in any native language spoken in Senegal," and without such a term, lesbians "have no voice in the culture…no allies in government…And they can't even imagine being out and that being a positive thing let alone a possible thing."

Her mixed motives mean well, hoping to provide that voice, buttress her own identity, and advance her career. Szapiro's performance blends both innocence and arrogance; you'd root for her if you didn't want to reply "seriously?" if not outright resent her self-centeredness.

Maria Shaplin's lighting creates a world of shadows and alleys for the underground life these young Senegalese must endure, but which, as both Aicha and Nene point out, they have learned to well navigate. Kidwell's strong performance mixes a stand-in-harm's way bravado with an eager, if understated yearning that if they lived in the West, they could lead different lives. And Moore's Nene chillingly captures the backlash when someone questions the morality that binds them into leading hidden lives.

In this regard, Goidel's work achieves a greater, if illiberal perspective of the clash of cultures at work here. She is an insightful observer and judge of the attitudes of her generation and how they differ (if not outright lag) behind the seemingly more sensible approach of same-age Senegalese. This is not to say that Aicha and Nene should not live freely as lesbians, or not have to give up their sexual identity to one day marry and procreate, but that they should not have to do so simply because some simplistic American undergraduate morality dictates those choices for them.

And her insights only add to the play's depth. To acknowledge real differences between individuals, communities, cultures, to do so while fostering rather than negating dialogue even when the other side seems unfathomable is both at odds with American diplomacy and social-justice-warrioring, while holding an open-ended promise long after the play concludes.

This powerful new work similarly reveals Goidel's own promise, that with greater dramatic skill, she will be a bright voice, waiting to speak out, forth and for those communities her work will embody, clarify, and serve.

(Full disclosure: Because of travel commitments, I attended a preview of this play, and as such, chose to focus mostly on the quality of the script. The director, playwright and my editor gave me permission to write about this show without seeing a non-preview performance.)

A Knee That Can Bend. Through Dec. 20 at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th St. Tickets: $10-$15. Information: orbiter3.org