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.

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Sacred, profane & magical – blood variations & intimate, powerful storytelling in BloodClaat

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d’bi.young anitafrika as Mudgu in BloodClaat – photos by Dee Kofri

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of BloodClaat: The Sankofa Trilogy Part 1, The Watah Theatre is remounting d’bi.young anitafrika’s award-winning Sankofa Trilogy, starting with a run of BloodClaat to open its 2016-17 Blk Bx Season [calendar link] at its home in Toronto’s Distillery District at 9 Trinity Street, Studio 317.

The Sankofa Trilogy takes us on the journey of three generations of remarkable Jamaican womxn,* starting with Mudgu Sankofa in BloodClaat, collectively directed, with the guidance and support of spiritual mentor Raven Dauda. A solo show inspired by anitafrika’s lived experience as an incest survivor, BloodClaat is part autobiography, part mythology as we follow 15-year-old Mudgu’s coming of age.

Mudgu lives with her grandmother while her mother prepares a new life for them in Canada. An active, precocious young woman who talks a mile a minute, she excels at net ball and adores her boyfriend Johnny. Navigating her grandmother’s strict house rules, her school and personal life, and a rough neighbourhood known for violence, she is also coming to terms with being a woman – and that means dealing with her monthly menstrual cycle and the power to create life (which her grandmother forbids her to do). Her world changes forever when she goes to live with her aunt and uncle for a while, and an act of violence in her grandmother’s neighbourhood ends in death.

Woven into Mudgu’s story are mythological tales and parables of strength and ritual; in particular, one of a warrior princess who gives a rallying cry to her people to rise up for freedom from their white plantation masters.

The theme of blood is the common thread: a womxn’s monthly blood, with the power of giving life and even healing; blood that’s shed in violence and in sacrifice; and the blood of goddess and ritual. And we see different perspectives and points of view on menstrual blood: shame, derision, celebration, creation and powerful magical properties.

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d’bi.young anitafrika in BloodClaat

Anitafrika is a profoundly compelling and engaging storyteller; and the staging in The Watah Theatre’s studio space makes for an extremely intimate, immersive experience. Throughout the story, the audience becomes Mudgu’s neighbours, her fellow bus passengers and the warrior princess’s people.

Told with humour, candor and emotional punch – incorporating voice, movement and posture, with very little in the way of costume changes – BloodClaat features sharply defined characters, exquisitely drawn by anitafrika. From the delightfully energetic and innocent Mudgu, to her sharp-tonged, strict grandmother and kind, gentle mother; her smooth talking boyfriend with swagger Johnny; her distracted, pious church lady aunt and deep-voiced, possessive uncle; the stuttering bus driver; and the fierce and inspiring warrior princess. We are rapt as we find ourselves alternating between being a fly on the wall and part of Mudgu’s story.

As is anitafrika’s custom, each performance is followed by a moment to catch your breath, and an opportunity to share comments and ask questions. When asked about BloodClaat and The Sankofa Trilogy, anitafrika described the generational through line and how she wanted to remount the work in a more intimate setting. As The Watah’s 2016-17 season experiments with a black box theatre experience, what happens when there is minimal production in a room filled with energy? Is it possible to move through a (r)evolution without resources? Confronted with limited funding and support, the stories still need to be told. Story moves us to change regardless. The houses have been small, but the impact has been huge; up close and personal, something magical happens in that space. And perhaps it is only in such an intimate space that storytelling medicine and healing – and profound, surprising growth – can happen.

An interesting divergence from the original production, noted by one audience member in her comment, was that there’s now a scene of Mudgu washing herself, her bed sheets and nightie. Bypassed for 10 years, anitafrika realized she’d been avoiding this reality of the story. Mudgu wakes up with menstrual leakage and needs to clean up. Of course she does! And in these moments, Mudgu must hold herself – and it’s become one of anitafrika’s favourite scenes.

Asked a more general question about what she says “No” to, anitafrika is mindful of corporate sponsorship. It’s important to know where your funding is coming from and who you’re potentially partnering with. Despite its seeming naiveté, anitafrika believes there must be a way to live your ethics and values – and that may mean revising your definition of success. It’s not about becoming rich and famous; it’s about living with purpose in service of your community. And while it’s not a new idea, “meaning leads to joy.”

With shouts to the creative team for their beautiful work on this production: Rachel Forbes (set and costumes), Andrenne Finnikin (ass’t set design) and Brett Haynes (lighting/producer).

Sacred, profane and magical. Blood variations and intimate, powerful storytelling in BloodClaat: The Sankofa Trilogy Part 1.

BloodClaat continues at The Watah Theatre’s space (9 Trinity Street, Studio 317) till Nov 20; it’s an intimate space and a truly compelling show, and you can get your tix in advance. Please note the 7:00 p.m. start time for evening performances.

The Sankofa Trilogy continues with Parts 2 and 3, with stories of Mudgu’s daughter Sekesu and granddaughter Benu in Benu (Feb 15-Mar 5, 2017) and Word! Sound! Powah! (April 5-28, 2017); this in addition to other productions scheduled for the 2016-17 season. All shows will be performed at The Watah Theatre’s home.

You can keep up with The Watah Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

Please consider supporting this unique and important theatre company by donating to The Watah Theatre’s Go Fund Me campaign.

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