Waiting for the American Dream in the provocative, disturbing, razor-sharp Pass Over

Kaleb Alexander & Mazin Elsadig. Set design by Julia Kim. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Costume design by Vanessa Fischer. Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri.

 

Obsidian Theatre takes us to the edge of the world in an urban Black neighbourhood in America with its provocative, mind-blowing production of Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over, directed by Philip Akin, assisted by Jay Northcott, and running at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Disturbing, thought-provoking and razor-sharp, it’s a 21st century Waiting for Godot, infused with the hope and resilience of The Book of Exodus, as two young Black men hang out on a street corner, making plans to better their situation and get to the Promised Land.

Before the action starts, we’re immersed in this microcosm of the modern-day Black experience in America—via Julia Kim’s effective, minimalist set design; Chris Malkowski’s lighting and Miquelon Rodriguez’s sound design. A lone streetlight, a fire hydrant and a wooden industrial spool on a stylized L-shaped street corner with an exaggerated curb. The edge of the world. A solitary figure in a hoodie sits, sleeping against the base of the streetlight, his back to us; a man appears, alternately pacing and sitting. The sounds of a classical music piece, ranging from tranquil to majestic, accompanied by the whoosh of passing traffic, as the light wanes and the streetlight glows to life. An object on the sidewalk, off to the right of the man—a lost sneaker, a rock?

Moses (Kaleb Alexander) awakens to see his friend Kitch (Mazin Elsadig). The dynamic between them creates an atmosphere of restlessness, wheels spinning and going nowhere, as they settle into an easy, familiar banter. And then, crackling with electric promise, Moses shares his hopes, dreams and plan to make something of himself and get out—out and away across the river to the Promised Land. Visions of champagne, caviar and top 10 lists dance in their heads as they speak of a better life to come, reveling in the possibilities that lie ahead.

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Kaleb Alexander, Alex McCooeye & Mazin Elsadig. Set design by Julia Kim. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Costume design by Vanessa Fischer. Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri.

Their reverie is continually interrupted by the abrupt, brief and jarring light and sound of a police cruiser; the cops constantly on patrol, looking for non-existent trouble and repeatedly harassing young Black men who are doing nothing wrong. Each time this occurs, Moses and Kitch assume the position: hands in the air, sometimes dropping to their knees. They’ve lost count as to how many friends have been killed. A stranger appears; the whitest white man you’ve ever seen (Alex McCooeye as Mister)—I’m talking 1950s suburban “golly gee” white. Carrying a picnic basket, he got lost on his way to his mother’s. Initially met with wary indifference, his Lord Bountiful offer of food is too good for the two friends to pass up; and like Mary Poppins and her bottomless carpet bag, he produces a veritable feast from his basket, including an apple pie.

Contrasted and complemented to the encounter with Mister, Moses and Kitch are set upon by the local beat cop (McCooeye as Officer), on patrol and looking for an excuse to hassle, or even shoot, a Black man—who he views as shiftless, lazy and stupid. “To serve and protect” only applies to people who look, act and speak like him. Left to themselves again, discouraged, weary and beaten down, Moses begins to question his original plan for exodus, and hatches a desperate alternate plan for himself and Kitch.

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Mazin Elsadig & Kaleb Alexander. Set design by Julia Kim. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Costume design by Vanessa Fischer. Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri.

Stunning, compelling and electric performances from the cast in this uncomfortable, sometimes satirical, and instructive piece of theatre. Alexander gives a passionate, charismatic performance as Moses; living up to his namesake, Moses is a natural leader, inspiring those around him with the hope of better things to come—but not without self-doubt and internal conflict. Elsadig’s playfulness, warmth and swagger as Kitch perfectly complements Alexander’s Moses; Kitch is more than just a friend—he’s a confidante, a brother. While Moses tends to be more of a cerebral ideas man with a dream to manifest, Kitch is driven by more pragmatic, visceral concerns; but he’s nonetheless inspired and willing to follow his friend, based on love and trust.

McCooeye offers two fascinating and telling portraits of white male power. Mister is a patronizing, clueless entitled white man whose hospitable demeanour is peppered with microaggressions and judgements of Black culture—insidious, “polite” racism. The white person who claims to never even think about using “the n word’, but who calls out Black people for using the term—wondering, if they can use it, why can’t he? As Officer, he’s the picture of the racist asshole cop who relishes abusing his power; keeping Black people “in their place”, he’s the embodiment of the darker, shameless side of the white-dominated power structure. Moses and Kitch speak the language of streetwise urban Black youth; and internalized racism makes them question whether it would be better to adopt a more white manner and speech, and assimilate into the safety of the dominant culture.

From plantation to ghetto, Pass Over provides ample evidence that white-powered systemic racism is alive and well in 2019—and and it will make allies question the true nature of their allyship. The apple pie of the American Dream is held out under the noses of those who are perpetually barred, blocked and beaten away from that dream, then taken away before they have a chance to taste it. It’s an unforgettable, uncomfortable, at times shocking, look into the hopes, dreams and lived experiences of the Black community—which is as it should be in the case of discourse on deep-seated systemic racism in America and, by extension, Canada. Make no mistake, Canada is far from innocent in this regard. And with the growing emergence of a new alt-right, emboldened by extreme right-wing leadership around the world, this is definitely not just an urban street corner issue—nor does it only impact the Black community.

Pass Over continues at Buddies until November 10; advance tickets available online or by calling 416-975-8555.

For additional context, check out this Artist Perspective piece by Obsidian producer Luke Reece in Intermission Magazine.

And check out the trailer:

 

 

 

Secrets revealed & dreams denied in the ferociously funny, deeply poignant August: Osage County

The ensemble. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Davida Tkach. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Life is very long.—T.S. Eliot

Soulpepper presents a ferociously funny, deeply poignant production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, running now at the Young Centre. Directed by Jackie Maxwell, assisted by Lindsay Bell, it’s a modern-day classic family tragicomedy; a microcosm of the disintegration of the American Dream. In the explosive aftermath of loss, a complex family dynamic of abuse, secrets and addiction is revealed—and the reeling survivors must choose what to do next as they pick their way out of the rubble.

When lauded American poet and infamous alcoholic Beverly Weston (Diego Matamoros) goes missing, his entire clan rallies around pill-popping family matriarch Violet (Nancy Palk), now living with cancer. The introverted Ivy, their youngest daughter (Michelle Monteith), the only the only one who stayed in town, has a secret love. Whip-smart academic Barbara, the eldest (Maev Beaty) is concealing her separation from her husband Bill (Kevin Hanchard), a university prof having an affair with a student; and their 15-year-old daughter Jean (Leah Doz) is just trying to deal with it all as she smokes pot on the sly. And middle daughter, the flaky Karen (Raquel Duffy), seems to have found a new lease on life with a career as a real estate agent and her charming, entitled, sleazy fiancé Steve (Ari Cohen).

Rounding out the family portrait in the dark, hot and decrepit family home in rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma is Violet’s filterless gossip of a sister Mattie Fae (Laurie Paton); artless, kind-hearted brother-in-law Charlie (Oliver Dennis); and fragile, depressed nephew Little Charles (Gregory Prest). Witnessing it all from the background is the Weston’s new housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Samantha Brown), a local Cheyenne woman hired by Beverly to keep home and hearth together amid the chaos of sickness, addiction and decay.

The family soon learns of Beverly’s whereabouts when town Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Jeff Meadows), Barbara’s high school sweetheart, arrives at the door with news that his body has been found—a suspected suicide, but officially ruled as a drowning. The initial dynamic of worried family support disintegrates into ugly revelation and recrimination as long hidden rot and resentment comes to light in the hellishly sweltering heat of the Plains in August; and Barbara attempts to take control of the situation. Left with Violet after an explosive post-funeral dinner, followed by several individual family skirmishes, Barbara begins to implode herself—and is forced to face a fresh hell and a decision of her own.

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Maev Beaty & Nancy Palk. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Davida Tkach. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Palk and Beaty are riveting as the sharp-witted, brutally honest mother and daughter—the two alphas of the family menagerie. Palk’s Violet is the perfect combination of fury and pathos; an acerbic tongue, and a gift for manipulation and attention-seeking, it becomes apparent that Violet’s dark humour and grasping materialism are borne of a tortured, impoverished soul and an abusive family history. She is well-matched by Beaty’s Barbara; a whip-smart writer and academic who’s suppressed her own ambition in the shadow of her famous father, and in service of her husband’s career and her own family. Barbara’s confident, take-charge demeanour reveals the desperately lost life and broken heart that lie beneath. And where Violet lashes out with cruelty to overpower, Barbara aims for tough love.

Monteith is heartbreaking as the gentle, put-upon Ivy, who’s struggling to find her place and a bit of happiness. Duffy is hilarious as the quirky, exhausting Karen; a one-woman hurricane of changeable beliefs and lifestyles, ever reaching for the brass ring. Dennis is lovely as the kind, gentle Charlie—especially in exchanges with his painfully self-conscious, down-trodden son Little Charles (a sensitive, child-like performance from Prest). And Matamoros brings a brutally insightful, drunken eloquence to the poet Beverly.

Expressions of love and tenderness provide brief moments of respite from the cruelty and bitterness of these complex family relationships. And Brown’s pragmatic, matter-of-fact Johnna—listener, witness and left to deal with the aftermath of each event—is a stark reminder of the original Indigenous stewards of the land we now call America; colonized and evicted from their homeland. Now watching from the sidelines as the American Dream falls into ruin, as all survivors emerge from and persevere through the rubble.

August: Osage County continues at the Young Centre until June 23; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Soulpepper will be offering live ASL interpretation for this production on June 6 (7:30 PM) and June 8 (1:30 PM); $20 tickets are available for Deaf community members and their invited guests—click here for more info.

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: