Part One of the Trilogy, Esu Crossing the Middle Passage, speaks to the past; Part Two, She Mami Wata and the Pussy WitchHunt is set in the present; and Bleeders takes us into the future. Directed by anitafrika, assisted by Nickeshia Garrick, Bleeders features choreography by Garrick, and composition by Waleed Abdulhamid (also the music director), assisted by tuku (also vocalist and vocal coach).
The Pickering nuclear power plant has exploded, destroying the environment, poisoning the water, rendering the population infertile and plunging the land into ongoing war. A group of Black womxn* survivors gathers to find a way to heal the land and its people. A lone bleeder (fertile) emerges to become their warrior, setting off on a vision quest in search of the Ancestor Tree. Meanwhile, an army draws closer, hell bent on finding bleeders in order to increase their numbers and continue the war.
The powerful, high-energy production features an equally outstanding ensemble: Olunike Adeliyi, d’bi.young anitafrika, Aisha Bentham, Raven Dauda, Nickeshia Garrick, Najla Nubyanluv, Sashoya Shoya Oya, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah and Ravyn Wngs. And the band – The 333, which performs with anitafrika on Aug 9 at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre – is Waleed Abdulhamid, Christopher Butcher, Odel Johnson and Patrick O’Reilly.
The devastating and hopeful storytelling is impactful, both visually (set/costumes by Rachel Forbes) and emotionally, told through song, mythology and the hero’s journey; and many of the ensemble take on the roles of the hero’s animal guides, moving with fluid precision. The effect is both magical and poignant. The lyrics and music resonate to the core, making you want to move and then weep; Garrick’s solo “Rest in Peace” and the “Black Lives Matter” finale are especially potent. Once again, I was left in tears.
In the end, we are reminded of what anitafrika described during the brief post-show talkback as “the intersectionality of oppression” – how all are affected when global greed endangers the climate and environment – and of our collective responsibility to do something about it.
Despite their best efforts at accessing funding through grants, the Watah Theatre is in dire financial straits and needs our help in order to survive. Please consider giving to their Go Fund Me campaign; and keep the vitally important company alive so it can continue providing artist training and support, and produce works that tell stories that need to be told.
Post-nuclear disaster bravery, vision quest and hope in the powerful, moving and resonant Bleeders.
Bleeders continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 14. And look for a life beyond SummerWorks – this is just the beginning.
*This is the playwright’s preferred spelling of “women.”
Moving forward from the past in Esu and into the present, She Mami Wata takes us to modern-day Jamaica, from a small-town church congregation to a womxn’s* dancehall in Kingston. From recent past to present day, we see the parallel journeys of four friends, from childhood games and sexual exploration through their evolution into adulthood, where they come to live their truth or repress it.
We see the opposing spiritual forces at work in this small town: Pastor M, who preaches the old-time religion long entrenched by colonialism; and Mother Tersa – who some would call “witch,” “healer,” “shaman” – who teaches the old ways of ancient African spiritual tradition. While Pastor M rails from his pulpit and in the aisles on the Old Testament creation story, Mother T gathers the children around her to tell them the story of Mami Wata (Mother Water), the name given to the womxn water spirits, who live in the water and embody its diverse and complex qualities: the cradle and giver of life, and bringer of storms, floods and tidal waves. Energetic and magnetic, Pastor M’s words spit fire and brimstone, and his special sermon is targeted against the LGBTQ community, as he preaches “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, or Sharon and Eve.”
Meanwhile, at The Pussy WitchHunt, the Kingston dancehall, Nicki dances; moving like water, her sensual undulations ripple out through the appreciative and vocal crowd. Here, she speaks against the terrible history of Jamaica’s buggery laws and hate crimes against the LGBTQ community – more leftover colonialism – and fosters love, ownership and empowerment over one’s body and sexuality, especially for womxn. The Pussy WitchHunt is the last queer-friendly dancehall left after the men’s spaces were burnt to the ground, and it is now a safe haven for all womxn-identifying people, including one of Nicki’s childhood friends, who is now a drag queen. To Pastor M, we are “congregation,” while to Nicki, we are “pussy witches” – each takes us in, accepting us into their respective flocks.
As the story of the four friends progresses, so too does the dynamic of innocence, sexual awakening, homophobia and betrayal. Love and friendship turn to revulsion and shame, and Nicki is forced to flee to her aunt’s in Kingston or suffer the terrible consequences of being outed by Michael. She invites Kizzy to go with her, and Michael has secrets of his own to keep, revealing a facet of the double standard between men and womxn, and the denial that turns him into the man we see throughout the play.
anitafrika, along with long-time friend and colleague Alfred, is the mistress of storytelling; charismatic, spellbinding and sensuous, she engages our senses and our minds, playing multiple characters, and incorporating song, dance and spoken word as she weaves ancient mythology and Christian Bible stories with politics, law and activism. There is no separation between the so-called “divine” and “profane” here – all is divine. The human body, sexuality and the freedom to express these aspects of our humanity are all divine, with special props and appreciation for womxn’s bodies, which continue to be objectified, abused, owned and repressed by men, law, religion and society. The two performers have incredible chemistry, as anitafrika deftly shifts between characters and locales, and Alfred acts a one-womxn chorus, band and DJ booth. The resulting storytelling is playful, dynamic, thought-provoking, sexy and gut-wrenching.
The packed house enthusiastically played along, interacting with the performers – no fourth wall here – as Pastor M works the crowd to praise God and condemn gays, Nicki goes forth in search of a lap dance patron, and the DJ tosses “treats” (panties, bra, scarves) to an appreciative crowd.
The Watah Theatre has a tradition of post-show talkbacks, creating an open and safe space for the audience to ask questions, and discuss and share experiences. anitafrika introduced and thanked the production and creative teams; and she and Alfred praised the audience, expressing appreciation for their participation and engagement, which fuelled the already high-energy performances last night. Summarizing the three parts of The Orisha Trilogy, anitafrika described Part 1 as being rooted in the past, Part 2 in the present and Part 3 in the future; Part 3 will be a post-nuclear accident dub opera, to be performed during this year’s SummerWorks (Aug 4-14). Esu crossing the Middle Passage has been made into a video, and there are soundtracks in the works for each part of the trilogy, along with published versions of anitafrika’s work. The most moving moment was an audience member’s sharing of a personal experience, triggered by seeing She Mami Wata, but also putting her on the road to healing the trauma.
With shouts to the design team for their beautiful, evocative work on this production: Jenna McCutchen (set/costumes), Sharmylae Taffe Fletcher (lighting) and Waleed Abdulhamid (sound).
Fire and water in magical, sensuous and moving She Mami Wata and The Pussy WitchHunt.
She Mami Wata and The Pussy WitchHunt continues in the in the TPM Backspace till May 22; it’s an intimate space and a truly compelling show, so get your tix in advance.
* This spelling of “woman” is the preference of the playwright.
Written and performed by d’bi.young anitafrika, assistant directed by Charmaine Headley and choreographed by BaKari I. Lindsay, with music direction by tuku, and live vocals/music by tuku and Amina Alfred, Esu Crossing the Middle Passage is Part One of The Orisha Trilogy – an epic work examining activism, divinity and the Black diaspora.
Utilizing mask, movement, song, spoken word, storytelling and verbatim theatre – the space transformed into the belly of a ship (Rachel Forbes, set designer), Esu Crossing the Middle Passage takes the audience along on the journey of an African womxn* captured and sold in the Transatlantic slave trade. But she is not alone on that terrifying crossing. The spirit of Esu (pronounced “eh-shoo”), the trickster god of Ifa and keeper of the crossroads, dwells within her.
Emerging from the horror, tears and death of that ocean crossing – not to mention ongoing mourning for family and home lost and never to be seen again – the stolen Black lives that survive are sold on the auction block in America. While Esu Crossing the Middle Passage is the portion of the trilogy that focuses on the past, it draws parallels to the present-day systemic oppression and discrimination; a system that includes classism, racial profiling/carding, poverty, chauvinism and homophobia. We are reminded of modern-day slavery of the unfair practices seen in domestic help and farm work, precarious work and work that doesn’t pay a living wage.
The vocalizations create a soundscape that evokes not only geography but emotion; it resonates as a mournful lullaby, a story, a people. And the voice-over is the true story as told by Olunike Adeliyi (who will be appearing in the final installment of The Orisha Trilogy) – how she was detained and strip-searched during a border crossing, based on an accusation from a woman she didn’t even know. From the fear and humiliation of the slave ship to that in the airport, the play is a stark reminder that – even in 2016 – passage and policing are still dictated by skin colour, and those with brown or black skin are judged by a different set of rules. It also highlights the multiple layers of privilege (based on skin colour, gender, country of origin, class, sexuality, etc.) that some enjoy and others do not – and why movements like #BlackLivesMatter are so critical and, sadly, necessary.
For me, the most poignant scene was of a little girl asking her granny questions, and how as her questions grow out from her own little world into the world at large, she discovers some harsh truths – and her happy, care-free innocence turns saddened and anxious. And yet, even out of this scene, there is hope in recalling that spark of divinity within – the divinity that ancestors brought with them across the ocean when it was all they had left. It left me in tears – equal parts sadness and optimism.
The relaxed, informal talkback that followed offered an opportunity for further discovery and closure – done in a space of respect, love, and a desire to share and learn. Audience members shared personal experiences, asked questions, offered comments. We learned that Esu has been demonized in some parts of the world and seen as the devil – part of a colonizing, systemic move to erase indigenous spirituality out of a people, stripping away culture and religion to replace it with European values and Christianity. This play comes with a trigger warning – and the production has a counsellor available on-site for those who need to speak with someone.
A powerful, deeply moving and bold investigation into the origins and echoes of the Black diaspora, Esu Crossing the Middle Passage pays respect to a painful past, with a glint of hope for the future. Esu tells those at the crossroads to choose carefully – and that goes for all of us.
With shouts to the design team: Rachel Forbes (set), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Waleed Abdulhamid (sound) and Holly Lloyd (costume) for their beautiful, evocative work on this production; and to the extra multitasking stage manager Kathleen Jones and assistant SM Sa/ShOYA Simpson.