Charity is never as simple as just giving. It’s certainly not that simple for Joe, a typical gap year traveller who finds himself engaged in a very atypical act of charity following a trip to Uganda. Having struck up a friendship with a Ugandan teenager, the eponymous Ronnie, Joe assumes the role of his mate’s unlikely sponsor, funding him through an education which becomes increasingly costly.
Far from some cleverly constructed prism through which to view the thorny matter of philanthropy, this is all true. Or so we are told by Joe Douglas, who has created and performs in this fascinating one man show about his own intense encounter with charitable giving. He introduces his tale with a statement of tempered veracity; the sequence of events is true, but the theatrical presentation is inevitably tainted with artifice. Ronnie’s presence, for instance, is generated through an actor’s voiceover, while there are editorial choices inherent in Douglas’ piecing together of the show. Questions of truth, fiction and theatricality are thus present in our minds from the outset, repeatedly resurfacing as Douglas engagingly relates his experiences.
We are quickly made to doubt, as Douglas did, the authenticity of Ronnie’s need. Is this not just some elaborate scam, a lie engineered to sponge off the naive, guilt-plagued Westerner? Is Douglas a generous friend or just a gullible “mug”? As the projected messages that have shot back and forth between the two friends over the years gradually mount up on the screen behind Douglas, overlapping to the point at which they obscure one another, these questions and others are increasingly blurred.
What Douglas’ piece also candidly exposes is the implicit selfishness of charity. For all the sacrifices that Douglas makes in order to continue supporting Ronnie through school and university, he is equally “addicted” to the act of giving, an act that becomes an integral part of who he is as he grows up. As he explains, “Ronnie was tangible – I got something back”. Box ticking is a recurring motif, suggesting both the self-indulgent accumulation of experiences that make up the average gap year and the progressive checkpoints of education, with Ronnie fast becoming a box in Douglas’ identity that has to be ticked over and over again.
But the most appealing aspect of Douglas’ story is its open-endedness. While his personal story becomes an engrossing conduit for wider issues about the nature of charity and responsibility, it resists judgements and conclusions. The one certainty is that, as Douglas’ aunt warns, “you can’t help everyone”. Whether it is right or advisable to offer assistance in the way that Douglas has, however, is a question that we are left to wrestle with.
**** – 4/5 stars
Educating Ronnie played at Assembly George Square as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. More information can be found here.