Seven performers. Three nights. One theatre project just getting started.
Artistic producer/project founder Jennifer Neales had been frustrated about the lack of diverse voices in theatre – particularly womyn of colour – for 10 years; that is, until she decided to do something about it. And that something is the HERStory Counts theatre project, which opened its inaugural performance at Red Sandcastle Theatre for a three-performance run last night.
Neales joined forces with some kick-ass creators and actors to put together a show featuring seven autobiographical monologues, where the actors were also the playwrights. Along with Neales, the creative team includes Jenna Borsato, Melanie Hyrmak, Franny McCabe-Bennett and Melissa Major.
Each monologue transitioning seamlessly into the next, this HERStory Counts program moves like a game of theatrical tag – playful, challenging and inclusive. The actors remain seated onstage throughout, participating with active listening and engagement – and an occasional declaration of sisterhood. Here’s a taste of the program, in order of appearance, including the unofficial (and very fitting) monologue titles, provided by Neales.
Tennille Read – Oranges are Green in Trinidad. Part memoir, part journey of discovery, Read takes us on a series of childhood and young adult visits to Trinidad, where she has a close bond with her grandfather. When she’s a child, he teaches her the alphabet, and instills in her an appreciation of education and curiosity; as an adult, she finds they have very different, culturally-informed views of education as she struggles with his response to her decision to study theatre at university instead of science. Her challenges continue as an actor, with casting choosing to only see the “exotic” possibilities of her appearance, while ignoring what makes her a unique individual. Oranges in Trinidad are green on the outside, but still orange on the inside – and it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Kelly Wilk – Captain Grief. Finding herself a widow in her mid-30s with young son to raise, Wilk takes us on a heartbreaking and hilarious journey of loss, grief and acceptance as she finds a unique way of coping – one that includes a cape. Bold, irreverent and outspoken, Captain Grief says what Kelly cannot say, faces what she’s reluctant to face and goes boldly forward into life without a beloved wife. Learning to be her own hero, Kelly finds she is Captain Grief.
Ordena Stephens-Thompson – Focus, Balance, Priorities, Selflessness. An actor, wife and mother of two daughters, Stephens-Thompson ignores the naysayers and doesn’t doubt that she could be an actor and a good mom as she breast-pumps during rehearsal breaks and takes calls from her kids during auditions. The constant rejection and racial stereotyping in casting (she’s Black) are discouraging, though – enough to make her quit acting for a while. Then, a breakthrough moment of encouragement and clarity changes her perspective and brings her back to a career she loves.
Evangelia Kambites – Strong Black Womyn. The title says it all. Kambites was brought up to be a strong Black womyn, and finds that identity challenged when she’s faced with a fight or flight choice in a confrontation with an aggressive and racist attacker, where verbal assault becomes physical. Living with PTSD and depression, she finds compassion and empathy for her assailant, who she learns is mentally ill himself, and discovers that she can still be a strong Black womyn in spite of it all.
Janet Romero-Leiva – Perfect Baby-making Body. Romero-Leiva and her female partner wanted to have a baby and decided to do it the old-fashioned way – with sperm in a cup. What follows is a frank, funny and moving journey through the IVF process of sperm donor selection, hormone supplements and pregnancy. The doctors told her that she embodied perfect baby-making conditions – but, then, nothing is ever really perfect, and she and her partner have a hard decision to make.
Susan A. Lock – Good Hakka Daughter. Lock is a smart, hard-working, good Hakka daughter with smart, hard-working, good Hakka parents. As a teen, she finds herself anxiously, but bravely, coming to terms with her high school course nemesis, chemistry, which despite her best efforts, she is unable to get. Intrepid and self-aware, she realizes her limitations and breaks it to her dad so she can get permission to quit the class. Academic pressures become more serious in university, where she must choose between her health and the possibility of disappointing her parents.
Sundance Nagrial – The Birthday Club. In elementary school, Nagrial is a bright, happy ray of sunshine and the chief party planner for her classmates’ birthdays. At home, there is no birthday party for her, but an ongoing battleground where she fights to protect her brother and mother from her abusive father, as her mother bears the brunt of the family violence. A startling and heart-wrenching reminder that you can’t always judge a book by its cover – you never know what’s going on beneath the larger-than-life personality that someone reveals to the world.
The storytelling is engaging, entertaining, deeply honest and moving. In facing personal obstacles and tragedies, each of these womyn finds reserves of strength she didn’t know she had. On the road to self-discovery, each finds what’s really important and what she’s capable of.
With shouts to multitasking stage manager Jenna Borsato and Neales’ wife Helen Tweddle, who worked front of house.
Strength, struggle and identity in the funny, brave and poignant HERStory Counts.
HERStory Counts has two more performances at Red Sandcastle: tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. Tonight is sold out, but there may be some seats left for Sunday’s show. Please note the early curtain time.
Keep an eye out for future productions. Like I said at the top of this post, this is just the beginning.
You can keep up with HERStory Counts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And check out my interview with Neales.
Here’s the promo video from this production’s Indiegogo campaign:
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