Reclamation & salvation—stories of Black women’s lives told with candor, sass & humour in powerful, theatrical for colored girls

Karen Glave, d’bi.young anitafrika, Ordena Stephens-Thompson, Akosua Amo-Adem, Evangelia Kambites, Tamara Brown & SATE in for colored girls—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Soulpepper opened its production of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have committed suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, directed by Djanet Sears with assistance from Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, to a packed house and a triple curtain call standing ovation at the Young Centre last night.

From the innocent, playful childhood world of hopscotch and double dutch in the playground, to sexual awakening and the discovery of sensual power in young adulthood, to the harsh realities and challenges of life as a Black woman, for colored girls is poetry and politics in motion. Incorporating spoken word, a cappella vocals, dance and storytelling, the excellent ensemble creates scenes, moments and soundscapes. The result is startling, theatrical, hilarious and heartbreaking.

Kudos to the ensemble: Akosua Amo-Adem, d’bi.young anitafrika, Tamara Brown, Karen Glave, Evangelia Kambites, SATE and Ordena Stephens-Thompson. With choreography by Jasmyn Fyffe and Vivine Scarlett, and music composition and arrangement by Suba Sankaran, the cast deftly weaves the stories of these women with honesty, courage and emotional impact—commanding the stage as they engage, entertain and wake us.

Brown’s opening dance is magical and elemental. Glave takes us back to the excitement and anticipation of graduation day with a tale of young love in the back seat. SATE takes charge and takes us out dancing; a woman enjoying the music and the power of her own body in motion. Stephens-Thompson regales us with a poetic, sensual account of woman (Kambites) who attracts with the mystery and allure of an Egyptian goddess. Amo-Adem takes us to church with a proclamation of what belongs to her, coupled with an order to get back what’s been stolen. And anitafrika breaks our hearts as a mother struggling to protect her children.

Highlighting the lived experiences of public and private selves—the public strength and confidence that protect the private vulnerability and fear—from hope and joy to loss and despair, for colored girls is a celebration of Black women finding their voices.

Reclamation and salvation—stories of Black women’s lives told with candor, sass and humour in the powerful, theatrical for colored girls.

for colored girls continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre; get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

In the meantime, check out the for colored girls teaser:

 

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce & funny Sound of the Beast

Tamyka Bullen (onscreen) & Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Hear ye, hear ye

let it be known,

No one on my block walks alone.

 

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) closes its 2016-17 season with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s (aka Belladonna the Blest) Sound of the Beast, co-directed by Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram, with ASL components by Tamyka Bullen, and featuring composition and sound design by David Mesiha. Sound of the Beast opened in the TPM Backspace last night.

Inspired by the story of Tunisian rapper Weld El 15, whose artistic freedom of speech was muzzled by police and government, and part of St. Bernard’s 54ology (her commitment to create a performance piece from each country in Africa), Sound of the Beast combines rap and spoken word with lived experiences for an up-close, profoundly personal and resonant performance. Complementing St. Bernard’s storytelling is a projected performance of Tamyka Bullen’s poetry, performed in ASL with English surtitles (projection design by Cameron Davis). And a series of radio voice-overs (Glyn Bowerman), updating us on news of an “incident” in a “priority neighbourhood,” provide a bleak commentary on the clueless, one-sided and white-washed view of mainstream media.

Autobiographical, observational and replete with first-hand lives lived in an environment of racism, mistrust and injustice, words and stories that we may only have read or seen on the news come to life. Urgent. Shocking. In front of us. What is the most shocking is that stories of oppression and injustice are not shocking, but part of our everyday lives.

Sound of the Beast
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

A compelling and engaging storyteller, St. Bernard shifts easily from pointed remarks and calling out prejudice, to casual and conversational moments. She puts forth hypothetical scenarios and asks us how we would respond; making us active participants as we silently think about the choices in front of us. And during two poignant and charged scenes, she speaks to her imaginary young son; guiding him on how to behave, speak and even set his facial expressions in order to stay safe out there when confronted by the authorities. At times speaking to us as friends, she takes us in and along on her journey—her research on Weld El, her personal experiences—genuine, infuriating, heartbreaking, hilarious. Shifting from a stand-up storytelling vibe, to in our faces or in emcee performance mode, St. Bernard moves through the space with ease and fluidity, with professionalism and personality. Singing and speaking with strength, emotion and moving beats, her job is to tell it—and she brings it big time.

Speaking as a Deaf woman born into a “hearing Indian-Guyanese Hindu-Christian family”—and living in a “hearing, straight Eurocentric Christian patriarchal country,” Bullen’s poetry is beautiful, moving and revealing. Highlighting the intersectionality of experiences of oppression and prejudice among the Black and Deaf communities, she points to how heavy unemployment and underemployment leave marginalized people struggling to get by in a system that “operates for so long based on ignorance and hate.” Writing of poverty, PTSD, the immigrant experience and her relationship with the earth, Bullen reminds us of the ever present need for mindfulness, awareness and compassion—and how we are all we are all born of the same Mother Earth.

Coiled on the floor and ready, the microphone is St. Bernard’s weapon and bridge; and the black hoodie she dons at the opening of her performance and sheds at the close is her storytelling cloak. If you are not black or marginalized, you can only glean so much from what you see and hear in the news about these lived experiences. Of being constantly under surveillance because of the colour of your skin and the neighbourhood you live in. Of being questioned by law enforcement for no reason. Of being misunderstood and not knowing what you’re supposed to say. Of unarmed youth being shot by police. Sound of the Beast brings it in closer. Come and hear for yourself.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce and funny Sound of the Beast.

Sound of the Beast continues in the TPM Backspace until May 7; book tickets online or call 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a powerful show and an intimate space.

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River

Spoon River ensemble—photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

 

Is your soul alive?

As we make our way into the theatre, we find ourselves entering the funeral of Bertie Hume; filing past old family portraits and rows of headstones as we make our way out of the funeral parlor and into the cemetery. We are greeted by funeral home attendants and, possibly, friends and family of the deceased.

This is our introduction to Soulpepper’s immersively staged Spoon River, based on Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology poetry collection, and adapted by Mike Ross and Albert Schultz for the stage, with music composed by Ross. A remount of this beloved, award-winning show is currently running in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre, located in Toronto’s Distillery District.

As Bertie Hume is left to her eternal rest, former citizens of the town—now “asleep” in the cemetery on the hill—emerge to share their stories with us, the passersby. Set in small-town America, the lives, loves, joys and pain of its people are revealed with memories, regrets, confession; at times harrowing (“Fire”), hilarious (“Couples” and “Drinking”) and heartbreaking (“Mothers and Sons”). The quirks, the humanity, the secrets and betrayals—all interwoven with poetry, spoken word, music and song, as we get snapshots of the people they once were.

The remarkable, multitalented ensemble plays and sings, with rousing, foot-stomping sounds and gorgeous, resonant harmonies in a collection of blue grass and gospel-inspired songs. Stand-out soloists include Alana Bridgewater, Hailey Gillis (as Bertie Hume), Miranda Mulholland, Jackie Richardson (“Widow McFarlane”) and Daniel Williston (“Fire”). Soulpepper veterans Oliver Dennis and Diego Matamoros bring stellar character work, as do Raquel Duffy, Stuart Hughes, John Jarvis and Michelle Monteith. Ultimately, Spoon River is a celebration of life (“Soul Alive”)—and a reminder that life, warts and all, is a cherished gift. I dare you to not stomp along.

With big shouts to the design team for their work on this magical, evocative production: Ken MacKenzie (set and lighting), Erika Connor (costumes) and Jason Browning (sound).

Heart vibrations as the dead weave tales reminding us to live in the inspirational, uplifting Spoon River.

Spoon River continues in the Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre until April 21; booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment—the place was packed last night and this show is getting lots of standing ovations. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Spoon River to New York City’s 42nd Street in July as part of its first NYC season at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

The Spoon River soundtrack is available on CD in the lobby of the Young Centre; you can also find it on iTunes. In the meantime, check out the trailer:

 

 

Interview: Lizzie Violet

Lizzie Violet—photo by Anna Lozyk Romeo

Happy International Women’s Day! Today’s post is an interview with an incredibly talented, hard-working, gutsy and generous woman in the Toronto arts scene.

Lizzie Violet is a writer, spoken word artist and horror aficionado—that “dark little girl with the crooked grin” who took her finely tuned, quirky sense of observation and love of zombie lore, and wrote it down. Evocative, darkly funny and sharply drawn, her writing ranges from hilarious and poignant personal storytelling, to socio-political observation, to chilling tales of the supernatural and deadly creatures from beyond the grave.

LWMC: You first become attracted to horror when you were a kid, staying up late with your dad watching old horror movies on TV. What was it that hooked you?

LV: Apparently, I liked to scare myself. Even as a young introverted kid, I figured out how invigorating an adrenaline rush felt. Even more so than watching the movies, the stories I would make up in my head scared me even more. I had an overactive imagination.  I was never afraid of the boogieman or the monsters in the closet. I was all about the bizarre versions of monsters and ghosts my mind would visualize or create and I would wonder if the creak in the stairs was a werewolf coming to gobble me up. I loved every second of it. Recently, my mom dug up some of the stories I wrote as a kid. You can see where it all began.

LWMC: You also became infamous around the school library for your interest in horror literature and biographies of serial killers. When did your love of the genre translate into wanting to writing horror-themed poems and stories?

LV: How that all started, was my Great Grandfather Bill died when I was 10 years old. I was really close to him. They took me to his viewing at the funeral home and to me, the man in the casket looked nothing like him. He had this weird heavy makeup on, including rouge and lipstick. At the viewing, I started asking a lot of ‘inappropriate’ questions about why he looked that way and what was going to happen to him now that he had ‘passed away’ (no one would actually use the word dead). No one would answer me. I had a melt down and then wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral.

After that, I would continually ask the librarians for books about death, eventually progressing to books on serial killers and hauntings. We used to get the Scholastic Book Club magazines and I would get upset when there weren’t books along that theme as an option. They (teachers and the librarian) became concerned about how morbid this young child had become. My parents were not pleased, to say the least. All of this pushed me further into introversion and a way for me to cope was to start writing. To everyone’s dismay… my writing was always horror themed. From that point on in my life I became death-obsessed. Not in a ‘wanting to kill myself way,’ rather needing to seek the knowledge about death. Why it happened, what happened to you and your body when you died. Why we had funerals. Did it hurt? Recently, I discovered a writer and YouTuber called Caitlin Doughty (her channel is ‘Ask A Mortician’); I wish I had known someone like her as a kid. She is open about death and death positivity.

LWMC: Over the years, you’ve written in a number of media, from poetry, to the story for I Hate Todd’s “Zombie Love” music video, to screenwriting, stage and radio playwriting, and blogging, including your new Not Vegan Now Vegan food/recipe blog. Do you have a favourite medium?

LV: Short stories. I am madly in love with short stories. It goes back to that adrenaline rush feeling. You have to get people pulled in and worked up in a short amount of words. The pressure to do that in under 10,000 words is exhilarating for me. If I had to pick a second, it would be screenwriting. I love storytelling in that format as well. When you read a book or a short story, the reader sees the setting or character differently. They create their own visual. When you put it on a screen, they get to see what you want them to see. They get to actually be in your head and that terrifying thought, is appealing to me.

LWMC: Last Fall, you bid farewell to Lizzie Violet’s Cabaret Noir and tapered off your event production work. And, most recently, you quit your day job to pursue writing full-time. What led up to that decision and how has it been, adjusting to the new routine?

LV: I realized I had my fingers in too many pies and, because of this, I wasn’t getting enough writing done. When I don’t write, I actually get depressed. I sat back and took a look at what I have accomplished; what I could accomplish and realized I needed to be all in. Life is too short and I don’t want to ever have regrets for not trying. You only fail when you don’t make the effort.

I’ve been adjusting well. I freelanced for almost 10 years prior to my last job, and am able to focus and be productive. There are days when you just can’t be creative, and my mantra for those days is to do something else. Go for a walk. Write a list. Have a dance party in the living room. Dig holes somewhere. Just don’t let frustration take over. Sometimes you need to shake the cobwebs out—then you will be fine.

LWMC: What have been your biggest challenges? Your biggest rewards?

LV: Other than things being tight financially at the moment, I don’t really have any challenges. I do have a lot of rewards. Being able to wake up every day and write is the best feeling in the world. I am also lucky to have a partner who is supportive of my dreams.

LWMC: You’re working on a novel right now. What can you tell us about it?

LV: Without give too much away—it’s semi-autobiographical, yet still fiction, a ghost story and set in small-town Ontario. The two main characters are teenagers who don’t fit into society’s ideals of what a teenager should be and, did I mention, it’s ghost story. The title of the novel is Freaks & Grimm. In the next month or so, I am going to start hitting up open mics and read parts of the novel.

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to shout out?

LV: Oh yeah! Going back to your question about shows, though I am no longer producing shows similar to the Cabaret, I am still producing shows that showcase my work. Heather Babcock and I are working on a new format for our RedHead Revue. Hoping to have a date for this spring.  I am also working on a YouTube channel called Lizzie Violet’s Lair.  The content will be segments on horror, b-horror movies, talks about death and the dead. I will have regular guests to chat about ghoulish things such as hearses, graveyard tours, the paranormal, ghosts, zombies and more. Oh… and don’t worry, we will also talk about horror-based writing. I’m working on the set-up and scripts. I’m hoping to launch it this summer. You should all subscribe so you don’t miss the launch: https://www.youtube.com/user/lizzieviolet1313

The RedHead Revue page is https://www.facebook.com/redheadrevue/.

LWMC: I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word?

All of them!  If I had to just pick one, it would be gloomy or serendipity. Can I choose two?

What’s your least favourite word?

Moist. Why does that word even exist?

What turns you on?

When someone gets my weird and morbid sense of humour.

What turns you off?

Phoniness. Say what you mean. Say what you feel. Don’t pretend to be something or someone you aren’t. Being authentic is important. Oh… damn… I sounded like a hipster.

What sound or noise do you love?

The sounds of a thunderstorm rolling in. Nothing more soothing than thunder and lightning.

What sound or noise do you hate?

The sounds of animals in pain. It breaks my heart.

What is your favourite curse word?

Motherfucker.

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue?

There isn’t any other profession. This is what I’ve dreamed of all my life.

What profession would you not like to do?

Veterinarian. When I was a kid, I had a brief moment were I wanted to be a vet, until I found out that they had to euthanize the animals.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

You made a wrong turn. It’s the other gates you want.

Thanks, Lizzie!

You can also keep up with Lizzie Violet on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Relevant, urgent, hopeful—the powerful, resonant evolution of Bleeders in Lukumi

There is a buzz of excitement and anticipation, a festive feeling. Those of us among the audience who arrived early had been listening in on a final rehearsal, taking in the lush harmonies and powerful lyrics as we waited in the hallway. And when we enter the space, we are welcomed, offered something to drink. It’s like we’re coming into someone’s home—and we are.

We are in Studio 317 at 9 Trinity Street in the Distillery District, home to The Watah Theatre. And we are about to witness the evolution of Part Three of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Orisha Trilogy: Lukumi, a dub opera that began as Bleeders in a workshop production at the Theatre Centre during SummerWorks 2016. The revised, retitled piece has been mounted for three staged readings—and last night was opening night.

Led by playwright/director anitafrika and musical director Waleed Abdulhamid, the Lukumi ensemble is a combination of the original SummerWorks Bleeders cast and Watah Theatre 2016/17 Artists-in-Residence: Saba Akhtar, Angaer Arop, Anne-Audrey, Naomi Bain, Aisha Bentham, Savannah Clark, Raven Dauda, Andrenne Finnikin, Nickeshia Garrick, Mahlet Gebreyohannes, FaithAnn Mendes, muyoti mukonambi, Najla Nubyanluv, Sashoya Shoya Oya, Kamika Peters, Radha Pithadia, Racquel Smith, Alexandra Sproule and Ravyn Wngs.

I saw the 2016 SummerWorks production, back when it was called Bleeders. Anitafrika refers to the piece as an “experiment” that combines dub opera and African traditions of choral work. Emerging actors were paired up with more experienced actors, creating a mentorship bond, and the cast was given space to experiment with characterizations; for the reading workshop, each character is presented in duet, a miniature chorus of two actors. The script was reworked for the reading event, to fill in gaps that would otherwise be covered by staging/action, with anitafrika acting as both narrator and conductor.

Most of the original script is still there: Lukumi is a hero’s journey in a futuristic post-apocalyptic dystopia following a nuclear disaster at the Pickering nuclear plant—an event that has left mankind sterile, but for a special one, the Lukumi. Sent off by a council of black womxn* to seek the Ancestor Tree in the hopes of finding what humans have forgotten about their role in creation, Lukumi embarks on a warrior’s vision quest into the underworld.

Guided by the teachings and principles of eight animal guides, she finds what she is looking for and returns home—but perhaps too late. The One World Army, seeking fertile women to swell their ranks to continue the 1,000-years War, is banging on the door. The situation is dire and many of her friends sacrifice their lives—but, having learned humility and accepting responsibility for mankind’s destruction of the planet, Lukumi has within her the seed of hope.

The most remarkable revision is the prologue, with the addition of an all too familiar voiceover—the “America first” portion of Donald Trump’s inauguration speech—which puts forth an “us first,” isolationist philosophy. It is a chilling foundation for what is to come, seguing into a scene of protest over the rape of the land and the poisoning of the water—and, in particular, the unsafe proximity of nuclear power plants to residential areas. The performance features stand-out vocal solos from Nubyanluv (Ancestor Tree) and Garrick (Elephant); once again, Garrick’s “Rest in Peace, My Friends” brought tears to my eyes—as did the epilogue “Black Lives Matter,” where the entire cast brings us back to 2016 in a stark reminder of ongoing social inequality and the oppressive abuse of power (which animal guide Lion warned Lukumi against).

During the post-reading talkback, as the cast introduced themselves, a common thread for their experience of this work—and working with Watah Theatre—emerged: they felt they were held in a space of mutual respect, and in the spirit of creative experimentation and collaboration. The Artists-in-Residence have been working in relative solitude, each crafting a solo piece, and those who have spent a most of their emerging careers working alone marvelled at the collective experience. There is a deep sense of gratitude, family and ownership in this oasis of creativity and support.

Anitafrika and The Watah Theatre foster a sense of community and outreach, emphasizing the desire to be present, and show up both in life and in the work they undertake. It is an inclusive, embracing space, where artists are invited to come as they are, and learn and stretch. It is a community of creativity, sharing and mentorship that creates artists who are also leaders and activists. Please consider supporting The Watah Theatre by contributing to their GoFundMe campaign.

With shouts to Stage Manager Samson Brown and Artistic Producer Brett Haynes—it does, after all, take a village to mount such an epic work.

Relevant, urgent, hopeful—the powerful, resonant evolution of Bleeders in Lukumi. I look forward to seeing where this production goes next.

The Lukumi workshop reading has two more performances at The Watah Theatre’s space (9 Trinity Street, Studio 317): today (Saturday) at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm; it’s an intimate space and a truly compelling show, so get your tix in advance. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Lukumi:

* This spelling of “woman” is the preference of the playwright.

Preview: June Cleaver goes to hell in hilariously dark, satirical & surreal Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT

hot-kitchen-second-shift-2

Filament Incubator presents Raw Matter’s production of Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT, written, directed, designed and performed by the Raw Matter ensemble, incorporating the writing of Sylvia Plath, Silvia Federici and Jean Genet. Opening tonight, I caught the preview at Kensington Hall (56A Kensington Ave., Toronto) last night.

When you arrive in the space, you’re immediately aware of all the pink. Up stage right is an enormous pile of laundry; stage left has a lush garden; and up centre is the kitchen, featuring a gas stove and counter. All very pink. Like old-school Barbie threw up all over that shit pink. Five women are already onstage, engaged in various household activities: laundry, baking, scrubbing the floor, beautification and gardening. The sound of a ticking clock. Loud. Merciless. Oh yeah, and there’s a baby doll on your chair; you’ll need that for one of the game shows later on.

Three of the women act as a chorus of house fairy-like beings; dressed in pale pink diaphanous dresses, their faces made up with shiny, metallic colours: Maybelline (Veronika Brylinska), Lysol (Alanna Dunlop) and Betty Crocker (Nicole De Angelis). They are the cheerleaders for traditional, old-school housewifery – the driving force in the nucleus of life, the home. In contrast, we see the growing frustration and irritation of M/Em (Daniela Pagliarello), who speaks with vivid, fierce poetry as she paces the garden like a caged animal. All the while, Powered by (Rebecca Hooton) works away at the laundry, seemingly oblivious to anything else.

This multi-media production draws on political, philosophical, technological and economic frames of reference in its presentation of various points of view on housekeeping, housewifery and womanhood. Throughout the hysterical absurdity of it all are some particularly entertaining and thought-provoking scenes: capitalism vs. communism in the Nixon/Khrushchev kitchen debates, featuring footage from that meetup; game shows, including one with group audience participation and another that sends up Let’s Make A Deal; and a beauty pageant – peppered throughout with variety show-style dance breaks. And things get really interesting when M/Em breaks free from her garden environment and bursts into the world of the house fairies, interrupting their delicate, light, “feminine” reverie. And far from being a passive entity on the sidelines, we see just how much this world relies on the efforts of Powered by.

Shouts to the Raw Matter ensemble for their incredible work on the writing, design and execution of this provocative and thoughtful piece. Brylinska brings a ferocious commitment to the otherwise superficial Maybelline; Dunlop’s Lysol is delightfully sassy; and De Angelis’s Betty Crocker is deliciously vacuous. As M/Em, Pagliarello is a housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown, the lone voice of dissention that dares to challenge the Christian/capitalist status quo of housewifery. Hooton’s Powered by is silent, uncomplaining and diligent; and, ultimately, she shows us just how committed she is to – and how reliant the rest of the world is on – her work.

June Cleaver goes to hell in Raw Matter’s hilariously dark, satirical & surreal Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT.

Hot Kitchen/SECOND SHIFT continues at Kensington Hall until October 1; it’s an intimate space, so you may want to book in advance. And don’t forget to throw the baby!

Amazing peeps and artists at RAW’s electric, eclectic VERVE artist showcase

DSCN2208Had an awesome time at the opening night of RAW Natural Born Artists VERVE showcase, which featured artists, music, fashion, makeup, accessories, film and performance art — with music by Tony Smart and hosted by Jack. This show runs two nights only (closing tonight) at Mod Club.

I chatted with artists Brenda Clews (who does beautiful, vibrant, erotic work), Jennifer Radford (whose portraits range from poignant to spooky) and Alfredo Galvan (who paints gorgeous fine cars), and photographer Ian G. McIntosh (who loves to bend reality with his cool, at times super close-up shots, where the everyday becomes remarkable). Fantastic art work all around, including the dark, disturbing work of Razmig, haunting photo-realistic images by H. Jordyn Taylor and cool tattoo illustrations by Lindsay Rose.

Caught some great performances as well, including Brenda Clews doing a multimedia poetry performance that included pieces using mask and Medusa wig; and some entertaining, tight acoustic music performances from Chantelle Hope and Trevor Dubois from Charlie the Kid.

So much to see — and the place was packed last night. I wasn’t able to stay for the whole night, but I can say you’ll find amazing peeps and artists at RAW’s electric, eclectic VERVE artists showcase. Catch the next roster of artists tonight before the showcase closes; doors at 8 p.m.

Here are some snaps I took last night:

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