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.

Drunk & delirious on life, love & art in Hooked

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Nicky Guadagni in Hooked – photo by Michael Cooper

Was back out to Theatre Passe Muraille last night for the opening of the last show of their 2014-15 season: Hooked, based on a book of poems by Carolyn Smart, adapted by and starring Nicky Guadagni, and directed by Layne Coleman.

Hooked features the stories of seven real-life women – each one creative, driven and sucking the marrow out of life in her own unique way – all played by Guadagni. Myra Hindley, the obsessed sociopath who murdered at least three children with her partner Ian Brady, gives a chilling account of their meeting and the aftermath of her incarceration. Unity Valkyrie Mitford, the entitled, bigoted upper crust Brit and exceedingly silly Hitler fangirl; giggly and slapdash, she speaks of meeting her idol and defending his brutal policies. Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, the fragile, self-destructive party girl; the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald and an artist in her own right, spinning and broken, cast off into madness. Dora Carrington, tomboyish, puck-like and intense, a gifted painter hopelessly in love with a gay writer Lytton Strachey – her desperation and loss pushing her to the edge of despair. Elizabeth Smart, the bored daughter of Ottawa nobility who seizes on her target, married poet George Barker, with single-minded drive, wanting art, love and children – wanting it all. Carson McCullers, physically damaged with health issues, sharp as a tack and wry-witted, the champion of misfits in her writing; she loved husband Reeves McCullers so much, she married him twice. Jane Bowles, a larger than life writer with a delightful Brooklyn Jewish accent, a woman of big fun and silent, infectious guffaws; a lover of women, married to composer and writer Paul Bowles, she fell in love at first sight with Cherifa, a woman she saw in a market in Tangiers.

All of these lives and voices are performed on a bare stage with a single chair, with Guadagni barefoot in a black dress. Chameleon-like and captivating, Guadagni channels these women using her body, her voice and her presence, shifting seamlessly from character to character in this dance of words and life experiences – and the result is compelling, funny and poignant. These women aren’t afraid to give ‘er – going home is not even an option as they go big, at full throttle.

Hooked is a remarkable, moving and entertaining one-woman show featuring seven exceptional, passionate women, drunk and delirious on life, love and art. Get on over to the TPM backspace to see this.

Hooked continues its run in the TPM backspace until May 10, with special performances Wednesday, April 22 at 6:45 pm (Egg Rolls with Andy – pre-show chat with Artistic Director Andy McKim); a post-show talk back on Sunday, April 26; and a student matinée performance on Wednesday, May 6 at 1:30 pm. You can purchase tickets in advance online here – highly recommended as seating is relatively limited in the TPM backspace.

With shouts to musician/composer Victoria Carr, who provided the original soundtrack of evocative piano and guitar music for the production – and who played live acoustic guitar during the show.

Check out the YouTube chat with Guadagni about Hooked: