Power, connection & identity in the potent, magical, eye-opening Watah Theatre Double Bill

“A world without fairy tales and myths would be as drab as life without music.”—The Watah Theatre

The Watah Theatre presents a Double Bill of biomythographies, including an excerpt reading of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Once Upon A Black Boy and the world premiere of Najla Nubyanluv’s I Cannot Lose My Mind, running in the Studio at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Once Upon A Black Boy, written and performed by d’bi.young anitafrika, opens with a mother singing to her infant son. Rocking him in her arms as she sings, she tells him he is beautiful and loved, enveloping him with encouragement and protection. When he grows into an energetic, self-involved (what teen is not?) 6’ tall 15-year-old, she must call him out on the condition of his room, slacking off on his chores and changing out of his uniform before he comes home from school. Because, now, she is afraid for him. She is afraid that others won’t see a 15-year-old child, but a scary, big Black man—and she’s terrified that assumptions based on fear, prejudice and racism could get him killed.

D'bi Young-54-flat-2
d’bi.young anitafrika

Told through spoken word, song and a cast of multiple characters, Once Upon A Black Boy is as much about Black motherhood as it is about raising a Black son—and how Black bodies are treated differently in the face of systemic and institutional racism. Joyful and hopeful, then exasperated and deeply concerned, anitafrika’s performance covers the complex array of experience of a Black mother—longing and hoping for the best, but bracing and preparing for the worst. The mother also fears what may happen when she’s not around, from having to be at work and, even more importantly, if she were to get sick. Her sister has just been diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, which we see played out when the sister visits the doctor to check out a lump and is instructed to keep an eye on it and return in six months.

Moving, insightful and peppered with playful comic moments—and filled with music and sharply-defined characters—anitafrika’s storytelling is both compelling and entertaining. I look forward to seeing where this story goes.

I Cannot Lose My Mind, written and performed by Najla Nubyanluv and directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, chronicles a Black womxn’s* quest to be rid of depression. Discovering an inexplicable mutual connection with a kind and helpful Black female therapist, the womxn finds she must also put up with the therapist’s questionable colleagues: two white male doctors who are happy to push pills onto their patients, including a hilarious list of possible side effects—but, oh, they have additional pills to take care of those too. Experiencing a dreamscape of shared connections with a group of seven women, some of whom were also being treated for depression—and including the therapist and her sweet, elderly receptionist—the womxn finds a bigger world outside her day-to-day life. Trouble is, the doctors have also discovered these mythological connections and want to harness the womxns’ collective power for themselves.

rsz_najla_nubyanluv_in_i_cannot_lose_my_mind_-_photo_by_enas_satir_4_1
Najla Nubyanluv

Telling the story through movement, song and a cast of characters, Nubyanluv weaves personal experience, dreams and mythology, creating a landscape of magical connections with a larger community as the womxn navigates therapy, medication and health care practitioners who don’t have her best interests in mind. Dressed in a goddess-like white gown, Nubyanluv gives a fluid, playful and mesmerizing performance. Connecting with the audience on a personal level as the story unfolds, she draws us into this world. This is what it’s like to experience depression—and struggle to get better and get your life back as you try to make sense of an often senseless world.

Both of these biomythographies demonstrate how anitafrika and Nubyanluv walk the talk of some of the key principles The Watah Theatre teaches its resident artists: Who are you? How are you? And what is your purpose? Theatre-making as self-discovery: the artist coming to the work as a human being, connecting with their lived experience, and then sharing that discovery as they connect with an audience. Making their lives as the make their art.

These stories also highlight the intersections of oppression, particularly the health care system’s failure to treat women of colour with equal respect and diligence. During the talkback that followed the performance, anitafrika also mentioned the importance of recognizing how we all perpetuate stigma ourselves, and to turn our focus away from how we are oppressed in our daily lives to how we propagate oppression. We need to examine power, not just how it’s exerted upon us, but how we exert our own power on others. Are we using our power for support and allyship—or to oppress and demean?

Power, connection and identity in the potent, magical, eye-opening Watah Theatre Double Bill.

The Watah Theatre Double Bill continues in the Streetcar Crowsnest Studio till February 17; advance tickets available online.

*This is The Watah Theatre’s preferred spelling of woman/women.

Advertisements

Toronto Fringe: Engaging, immersive storytelling & a bird whispering love letter to mom in charming, poignant Life List

life-list-press-photo-1-credit-andrew-gaboury-medAre you ready for an adventure? Then you must come along on Alex Eddington’s bird watching walking tour Life List at this year’s Toronto Fringe, directed by Tyler Seguin and starting off at the Randolph Theatre.

Wear some good walking shoes and bring binoculars. If you don’t have binoculars, no worries – Eddington has extra and he’s got great tips for those who haven’t used them before. Working in pairs, with binoculars and clip board maps in hand, you’ll set off into Seaton Village (the neighbourhood just northwest of Bathurst/Bloor) as you assist Eddington in his search for an elusive and rare leucistic bird that’s been sighted in the neighbourhood, and drawing a following of fans and protectors. There’s even a debate on what to name it.

As you scan the trees for movement and check the ground for evidence of feathers, and note any sightings on your map, Eddington gives a brief history of how he got into bird watching. Through anecdotes, songs and memories, we learn of his late mother’s love of birds – and how she kept a life list of her sightings in a little silver book, which contains sightings dating back to 1977. Before she died of breast cancer in 2014, she passed her book and her bird watching legacy on to Eddington, who fondly recalls watching with her. Stories of family and beloved pets emerge, in particular a cockatiel named Spike; full of character and definitely part of the family, Spike was also a winged guardian for Eddington.

I first saw Eddington perform during a preview of his SummerWorks production of Yarn two years ago. An entertaining and genuine storyteller/field trip leader, in Life List he adeptly weaves interesting facts and tidbits about our feathered neighbours with childhood memories and stories of family, especially his mother. The tension comes when the time and energy spent on the object of our search becomes challenging, tedious and seemingly fruitless. Where did she go?

Engaging, immersive storytelling and a bird whispering love letter to mom in the charming, poignant Life List.

Life List continues, with its starting point at the Randolph Theatre, until July 10; advance tickets are a good idea for this one – spots are limited and the show has been getting good buzz. For ticket info and advance tickets/passes, check out the Fringe website.

FireWorks: Lumpectomy champion Dr. Vera Peters puts ‘Do No Harm’ to the test in Radical

Helly Chester as Dr. Vera Peters in Radical - photo by Bruce Peters
Helly Chester as Dr. Vera Peters in Radical – photo by Bruce Peters

The final production of Alumnae Theatre’s annual FireWorks program opened last night: Charles Hayter’s Radical, directed by Neil Affleck, with associate director Ingryd Pleitez.

I saw an earlier version of Radical at the 2014 Toronto Fringe Festival – and loved it – so I was very excited to see it again in its current iteration. Hayter and Affleck describe the process that led to the FireWorks production in an interview on the Alumnae Theatre blog.

Based on the true story of Canadian oncologist Dr. Vera Peters’ (Helly Chester) fight for a less aggressive procedure than radical mastectomy to treat stage one breast cancer tumors, Radical takes us along with Peters as she navigates the old boys’ club that is medicine – represented by the character Dr. Bernie Fowler (Rob Candy) – and an 80-year-old ‘gold standard’ treatment that has never been questioned. That is, until she meets Professor Rose Levine (Kelly-Marie Murtha), who has a two-centimeter tumor – and wants to know why they just can’t remove the tumor and leave the rest of her breast alone. With the help of new young, forward-thinking surgeon Frank (Feerass Ellid), and despite the grave misgivings of her nurse Helen (Anne Shepherd), Peters launches a retrospective case study, diving into thousands of hospital patient records in an effort to prove that the lumpectomy is just as effective as the radical at treating cancer – and certainly less fraught with negative, life-changing side effects.

The expanded script (from a 50-minute running time in Fringe to about 2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission, in the current production) makes for a more thoughtful pace and a more gradual arc as Peters goes from being an unquestioning supporter of the status quo to a tireless fighter for change. Chester does a nice job with Peters’ journey from accepting to questioning to searching to fighting. An attentive physician who is sympathetic to patient concerns about the radical’s degree of invasiveness, her kind bedside manner tends towards sugar-coating the possible negative outcomes. But, gradually, her intensifying anger against a procedure that puts tradition and expediency – and even financial gain – over the wishes and best interests of the patient spurs her to action. A reluctant – and ultimately courageous – hero, medical choices become personal when she’s faced with her own breast cancer diagnosis. Murtha’s Rose is the perfect catalyst for Peters’ change of heart. An outspoken feminist, irreverently funny and always asking how things could be better, she refuses to take her post-operation side effects lying down and inspires Peters to be the fighter that breast cancer patients need.

Anne Shepherd, Helly Chester & Kelly-Marie Murtha in Radical - photo by Bruce Peters
Anne Shepherd, Helly Chester & Kelly-Marie Murtha in Radical – photo by Bruce Peters

Candy’s Dr. Fowler is a great foil for Peters, a long-time colleague and friend turned frenemy on the other side of this battle. A chauvinistic, arrogant surgeon who’s happy to have Peters working oncology and schlepping through statistics for a case study he wants to co-author with her, he’ll brook no suggestion as to how the surgery could be improved. And this despite the fact that he has direct knowledge of the emotional and physical aftermath of the radical after assisting with the procedure on his wife. Shepherd is bang-on as the tough, clockwork proficient, old-school nurse Helen; fiercely protective and supportive of Peters in most things, she takes the fatalist view – believing that change isn’t possible, so why even try. Enter Ellid’s wide-eyed, idealistic and driven young Frank, who has an eye on distinguishing himself as a surgeon and on the future of his profession. Refusing to be indoctrinated into old boys’ medicine, he questions and seeks a better way – and, like Peters, is willing to risk his job to get the lumpectomy recognized as a viable alternative to the radical.

In the end, Radical is as much about the guiding principle Primum Non Nocere (First, Do No Harm) as it is about the pioneering of the lumpectomy as a standard alternative to radical mastectomy. It brings forward important questions of patient consultation and the impact of surgery on quality of life. It asks what good is there in saving a patient’s life when they are left physically and mentally broken – with no guarantees that the cancer won’t come back anyway.

Lumpectomy champion Dr. Vera Peters puts ‘Do No Harm’ to the test in the eye-opening, dramatic and sharply funny Radical.

Radical continues at Alumnae Theatre’s FireWorks until November 22; you can purchase tickets online or an hour before show time at the box office (cash only).

You can follow the goings on at Alumnae Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, take a look at trailer for Radical:

 

 

The power of the quantifiable meets the strength of the immeasurable in HER2

HER2-header-finalWhen you see an image of HER2, you’re struck at how remarkably – and surprisingly – beautiful it is, like a Valentine’s heart with a single foot on point. Feminine. Ballerina-like.

Maja Ardal’s HER2, directed by Kim Blackwell for Nightwood Theatre, opened its world premiere run at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre this week – the play named for the gene that plays a role in the development of a specific type of breast cancer, and set in a human clinical trial for a new drug.

Dr. Danielle Pearce (Nancy Palk) has had success in the lab treating mice, and has the green light and funding to start a human trial. She takes on PhD student Kate (Bahareh Yaraghi) as her research assistant and starts treating a group of specially selected women – women who have run out of treatment options. The play focuses on a subgroup of seven women; they come from various walks of life and ethnic backgrounds, and most are 40 to 60 years old. One is only 19.

HER2 is a multidisciplinary, multimedia production, incorporating projected images (by Denyse Karn) both real and magical – microscopic cells, female anatomy, CT scans, rays of light and photos of the participants – as well as choreographed movement (by actor Monica Dottor) that beautifully and expressively sets the process of examination and administration to motion.

Blackwell has a stellar cast for HER2. Palk brings a nice blend of humanity and wry humour to the prickly Dr. Pearce, a brilliant and ambitious clinician who’s better with rodents than she is with humans. Yaraghi’s Kate is bubbly and wide-eyed with youthful energy, highly intelligent and interested in the medicine, but particularly invested in the people – she is the bridge between the science and the human touch of the trial. Kyra Harper gives an earthy warmth to the pragmatic dairy farmer Frances, the participant with the most aggressive cancer who literally and figuratively becomes the touchstone of the group. Chick Reid gives a lovely layered performance as Naomi, the chilly and sharp-witted academic who finds she needs more than ciggies and scotch to get through this. Maria Vacratsis is irreverently funny and overflowing with positive vibes as Gloria, the group den mother. Diana D’Aquila is beautifully fragile and sweet as the child-like housewife Daphne, a joyfully expressive bundle of collegial dynamism. Brenda Kamino brings the spirit of open-minded wisdom and support to Melissa (Minnie), a natural medicine practitioner, when she’s not a trial participant – always willing to lend a hand and a cup of stinky herbal tea. Monica Dottor is wonderful as the vivacious and stubborn Charlene, an actress and mother of a young child who makes the risky decision of choosing the trial over a hysterectomy in hopes of having more children one day. Olunike Adeliyi does a remarkable job with the complex young Anya, the baby of the group – a hip and tough as nails, scared kid – full of rage, but willing to relinquish her lone wolf detachment to fully participate, and regain a sense of sociability and community. And Ellora Patnaik brings a spunky take-charge sass to Nurse Gabby; excellent at her job, unafraid of drawing boundaries – and full of surprises – as she suffers no fools on her turf, the treatment room.

What these women all have in common – patients and practitioners alike – is drive, fight, courage and hope. And the greatest of these is hope.

With shouts to Julia Tribe’s design: each participant is represented with a pedestal and microscope up along the catwalk, and each has a modular chair and IV pole, which Dottor also includes in the choreography. And a very effective use of voice-over, with a flat and clinical male voice, distant and detached, querying the participants on medical history and trial survey questions.

The power of the quantifiable meets the strength of the immeasurable as science and community join forces in HER2. Seriously – go see this.

In the meantime, take a look at some great profile pieces in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and NOW Magazine. You can also check out Nightwood’s YouTube channel for interviews with the HER2 folks – here’s the trailer:

HER2 continues at Buddies until February 1. Last night’s house was packed, so you may want to book ahead online. The production run also features Talkback Wednesdays (Jan 21 & 28) and panel conversations after the matinee performances (Jan 17 and 31). And HER2 has partnered with the Feminist Art Conference (FAC) to include a photography exhibit by Carol Mark.

Toronto Fringe: Sharp-witted, informative & moving story of the fight for the lumpectomy in Radical

radical.web_-250x250So what if I told you that, up until the 70s, radical mastectomy was the go-to procedure for Stage One breast cancer (e.g., a pea-sized tumor)? You’d likely be a bit shocked, puzzled and possibly enraged. Right? I know I was.

Playwright/oncologist Charles Hayter’s play Radical – developed and presented as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival in March, and currently running in the Toronto Fringe Festival – tells the true-life story of Dr. Vera Peters, a Princess Margaret Hospital oncologist who fought for an alternative procedure, the lumpectomy, where only the tumor is removed.

Directed by Edgar Chua, Radical has a fine cast: Jane Smythe gives a very strong performance as the sharp, wry-witted and kind workaholic Peters; and Susan Q. Wilson is a picture of efficiency and protective concern as Peters’ nurse colleague Helen. Sheila Russell is a force to be reckoned with as the feisty, good-humoured, no-bullshit feminist activist Professor Rose Levine – who is more than happy to lock horns with Jerrold Karch’s cantankerous, arrogant and narrow-minded Chief of Surgery Dr. Fowler. And Jeff Yung is endearing and gutsy as the put-upon, forward-thinking young surgeon Frank.

Peters is eventually forced to make some critical treatment decisions herself when she gets her own diagnosis. But throughout the course of this play, we see that her push to examine the efficacy of, and ultimately implement, the lumpectomy wasn’t just a struggle for women’s health/rights, but for all patients’ rights – striving to afford patients the compassion, respect and decision-making power they deserve within the health care system. Hayter’s play gets to the heart of the Hippocratic oath maxim “Do no harm;” it must extend to treatment procedures – providing a good outcome, while keeping the possible negative impact on the patient in mind.

On a personal note – as someone who’s had a hinky mammogram result, a negative biopsy and ongoing mammogram follow-up to keep an eye on the suspicious particles – I’m very glad and grateful that Peters’ work resulted in the possibility of keeping my breast, should the need for surgery come to pass.

Radical is a sharp-witted, informative and moving telling of Peters’ fight for the lumpectomy.

Running until July 13 at the Tarragon Main Space, you can find exact dates/times for Radical here.