Truth & reconciliation through music, one step at a time, in the inspirational, intersectional I Call myself Princess

Marion Newman & Aaron Wells. Set design by Christine Urquhart. Costume design by Snezana Pesic. Lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Paper Canoe Projects and Cahoots Theatre join forces with Native Earth to present Jani Lauzon’s I Call myself Princess, directed by Marjorie Chan, with associate director Keith Barker and music direction by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. History, biography, opera, and truth and reconciliation combine in this inspirational, intersectional tale of two Indigenous opera singers connecting across time and space in a journey of discovery, identity and bridging the gap between peoples one step at a time. The show opened to a packed house at the Aki Studio last night.

When opera student William (Aaron Wells), a gay Métis man, moves from Winnipeg to Toronto to study on a scholarship, his work on a production of Shanewis (The Robin Woman), 100-year-old “Indian Opera,” turns into a journey of discovery, revelation and mystical connection. Dropping clues into his path is the spirit of Tsianina Redfeather (Marion Newman), whose life and experience inspired and informed the opera, written by white composer Charles Wakefield Cadman (Richard Greenblatt) and white librettist Nelle Eberhart (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster).

Borrowing from Indigenous music, filtered through the colonial lens of well-meaning, but unaware white artists, the opera seems hokey and embarrassing by today’s standards in terms of its cultural appropriation, and romanticized, homogenized presentation of Indigenous culture. And as he delves deeper into its history—consulting mainly the works of white academics—Will finds himself increasingly uncomfortable rehearsing it. His numerous calls to the Dean falling into a voicemail black hole, he reaches out for support from his boyfriend Alex back home (Howard Davis)—who’s overwhelmed with shift work, business school and looking after his family—and finds he’s on his own. Until Tsianina appears. An Indigenous opera singer from the past, she shows him the path she chose and the part she played in putting Shanewis on the stage.

Lovely, compelling work from this cast, featuring some impressive vocal chops. In an artfully balanced performance that features soaring mezzo soprano vocals, Newman’s Tsianina is playfully mischievous and possessing the wisdom of an elder; part colleague, part spirit guide on Will’s journey of identity and expression. Understanding that sharing truth and effecting change take time, Tsianina is patient and circumspect as she works on the opera—growing and earning respect as an artist, but holding back as she gauges what her non-Indigenous colleagues and audiences are ready for. Turning down two opportunities to perform at the Met, sees her work as a balance between self-expression and truth-telling—and making connections, step by step. Wells adeptly navigates Will’s inner conflict and serves up passionate, robust vocal performances. Personal and professional challenges collide, and Will struggles to be truth to himself and his drive for artistic expression and career, and his Indigenous heritage as he struggles with the content of the opera.

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Richard Greenblatt, Aaron Wells, Marion Newman, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Howard Davis. Set design by Christine Urquhart. Costume design by Snezana Pesic. Lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Rounding out the intersectional angle of the piece are Greenblatt’s Charles, a gay man navigating his personal and professional life during a time when being out was suicide; and Ch’ng Lancaster’s Nelle, who like Tsianina must keep the public’s preparedness (in her case, for a female librettist) in mind. Greenblatt and Ch’ng Lancaster do a commendable job with Charles’ and Nelle’s personal arcs—going from well-meaning, but patronizing and largely clueless in their support of Indigenous peoples to more respectful and thoughtful allies. And Davis’s Alex, a Black gay man who doesn’t read as Black due to his light skin tone, and who must deal daily with the outside perceptions and assumptions in a largely white population. In a performance that shows both strength and vulnerability, Davis gives us a loyal, passionate man who sacrifices much for those he loves, but must come to terms with the fact that, despite his best efforts, he can’t be all things to all people, all the time.

You can tell that a lot of love, work and thought went into the production design. The fringe on Christine Urquhart’s set, combining colonial and Indigenous elements, mirrors that of Tsianina’s costume; designed by Snezana Pesic, and built by Kinoo Arcentales (Yana Manta), with beading by playwright Jani Lauzon (who delivered the moccasins last night after working all night to finish the beading). And Marc Meriläinen’s sound design—drawing from Shanewis (The Robin Woman) and classical opera, as well as original compositions by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate and Jani Lauzon—immerses us in this world of music, cultural intersection and history.

Truth and reconciliation—step by step, in each connection, each collaboration, each brave act of expression.

I Call myself Princess continues at the Aki Studio until September 30. Get advance tickets online and go see it.

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Discovering & unpacking identity & marginalization in Jivesh Parasram’s entertaining, candid, mindful Take d Milk, Nah?

Jivesh Parasram. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Pandemic Theatre and b current performing arts, with the support of Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM), present the premiere of Jivesh Parasram’s one-man show Take d Milk, Nah?, directed by Tom Arthur Davis—opening last night in the TPM Backspace.

Do you have any Indo-Caribbean friends? Do you want one? Jivesh (Jiv) Parasram will be that friend. Canadian-born with Indo-Trinidadian heritage, Jiv’s short piece about birthing a cow, coupled with experiences of growing up in Nova Scotia, and connections with family in Trinidad and Hinduism, evolved with the assistance of dramaturg Graham Isador into Take d Milk, Nah? The title is Jiv’s impression of a Trinidadian cow; cow’s don’t “moo” so much as they “nah.” Also, cows are awesome (and we’re greeted by one outside TPM).

Beginning with a hilarious prologue that introduces the show as an identity play, Jiv is as much self-deprecating as poking fun at the solo show experience. And he nails it when he points out that identity plays are an especially Canadian thing. Part stand-up, part storyteller, part teacher, Jiv weaves cultural and family history with ritual, Hindu stories and personal anecdotes—and even a trip into his mind—gently schooling us along the way with patience and good-humour.

Like when he talks about the impacts of colonialism and imperialism on occupied and/or enslaved peoples. When slavery becomes indentured servitude, and communities of former slaves are regarded with suspicion and fear of an uprising, an already oppressed people become further separated from their loved ones and even their identities. Scattered into the marginalized edges of society, how do they live with others, often in a new world far from home, and not lose their own culture?

Growing up in the East Coast of Canada, neither black nor white, and the only member of his family not born in Trinidad, Jiv relates his personal struggles in the search for identity. The birthing of the cow back in Trinidad becomes an important symbol of Indo-Trinidadian cultural identity for him—and this story is full of excitement, edge-of-your-seat veterinary drama and hilarious procedural descriptions. He also relates the personal impact of 9-11; the increase in racist remarks and treatment when he was assumed to be Muslim and therefore a terrorist. And how this led him to embrace Hinduism, thus distancing himself from ‘those bad brown people’—and stung by his response to save himself when Muslims became the target of increased oppression.

Jiv doesn’t want to start an oppression pissing contest or point fingers of blame; well-aware that mainstream education tends to leave out or gloss over the history and lived experiences of people of colour (POC), and that some white folks haven’t had the opportunity to befriend a person of colour, he’s happy to school us. And he delivers some harsh truths with a spoonful of sugar—all while recognizing his own privilege as a straight, cisgender male with a microphone. But, then, this can get exhausting—for anyone who identifies as POC. The extra time and effort spent providing basic background information of cultural history and lived experience isn’t something that people who enjoy white privilege have to do. And important, nuanced and deeper conversations may have to be delayed or put aside in the process.

Hilariously entertaining and insightful, Jiv is a sharp and engaging storyteller. Playful and candid as he chats with us—including some gentle, fun audience participation—he is respectful and inclusive, even when pointing out our differences. Because, after all, as he aptly points out, identity is an illusion—and we are all the same.

Informative and uplifting, Jiv’s show may inspire you to learn more, or check your way of thinking about and treating those who aren’t like you. And you may wind up leaving the theatre asking yourself how you hold privilege, and if/how you are marginalized.

Discovering and unpacking the intersectionality of identity and marginalization through storytelling and ritual in the entertaining, candid, mindful Take d Milk, Nah?

Take d Milk, Nah? continues in the TPM Backspace until April 22; get advance tickets online or by calling the TPM box office at: 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended.

The run includes a Relaxed Performance on Saturday April 14, 2018 at 2pm; an ASL Performance on Friday April 20, 2018 at 7:30pm; and an Audio Described Performance on Saturday April 21, 2018 at 2pm.

Check out the trailer:

Fire & water in magical, sensuous & moving She Mami Wata & The Pussy WitchHunt

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d’bi.young anitafrika (Nicki) & Amina Alfred (the DJ) in She Mami Wata & The Pussy WitchHunt – photos by Dee Kofri

d’bi.young anitafrika’s epic exploration of the Black diaspora, activism, divinity and sexuality in The Orisha Trilogy – starting with Esu Crossing the Middle Passage – continues with The Watah Theatre’s production of She Mami Wata and The Pussy WitchHunt: The Orisha Trilogy Part 2. Directed by Blakka Ellis, assisted by Wendy Olunike Adeliyi, with choreography by Ravyn Wngz and Lady Kori, and music direction/composition and live music/vocals by Amina Alfred, She Mami Wata is currently running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace.

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.

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d’bi.young anitafrika as Pastor M in She Mami Wata & The Pussy WitchHunt

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.”

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d’bi.young anitafrika as Mother Tersa in She Mami Wata & The Pussy WitchHunt

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.