The power of love, music & colour in the visually rich, magical, ground-breaking The Black Drum

Corinna Den Dekker, Dawn Jani Birley, Yan Liu & Daniel Durant. Set & props design by Ken Mackenzie. Costume design by Ruth Albertyn. Makeup by Angela McQueen. Video & projection design by Laura Warren. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Commissioned and produced by the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf, the Deaf Culture Centre presents the world premiere of Adam Pottle’s Deaf musical The Black Drum,* in partnership with Soulpepper at the Young Centre. Directed by Mira Zuckermann, assisted by Jack Volpe, with movement and choreography by Patricia Allison, The Black Drum combines signed music, dance, movement and projected imagery to tell the story of a woman’s journey through loss and grief to find the power of her inner music, as her tattoos come to life and launch her into a strange, dark world dominated by a sinister force. The result is a visually rich, magical and ground-breaking piece of storytelling.

As the story begins, we are introduced to the Minister (Bob Hiltermann), a sinister and controlling presence who dominates a world devoid of music, laughter, love and freedom. Meanwhile, performing artist Joan (Dawn Jani Birley) is reeling from the loss of her beloved wife Karen (Agata Wisny), inconsolable as her roommates Bree (Yan Liu) and Oscar (Daniel Durant) try to reach through her grief. Propelled into the world of the Minister, Joan’s tattoos Butterfly (Liu) and Bulldog (Durant)—beauty and strength—come to life.

In this dark, grim and desolate place, Joan encounters the Minister’s reluctant lieutenant Squib (Natasha C. Bacchus) and Ava (Corinna Den Dekker), who dances with a group of children (Jaelyn Russell-Lillie, Sita Weereatne and Abbey Jackson-Bell). Ava tells Joan that the Minister controls this world, a place between life and death, with magic—his black drum (drum accompaniment by Dimitri Kanaris), the embodiment of his empty black heart. And Joan also learns that Karen is the Minister’s prisoner. Charged with using her colour and music, Joan sets out with her friends to defeat the Minister and free her beloved from his clutches.

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Agata Wisny & Bob Hiltermann. Set & props design by Ken Mackenzie. Costume design by Ruth Albertyn. Makeup by Angela McQueen. Video & projection design by Laura Warren. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Hiltermann brings a nightmarish, supernatural edge to the menacing, arrogant Minister; his sharp-featured white face mirrored by the spooky talking head projections that flank the stage—occasionally speaking they guide us through the story (voice acting by Raquel Duffy and Diego Matamoros). Birley’s performance as Joan beautifully weaves the devastation of grief with the perseverance of resistance as Joan strives to free Karen, despite the fact that she’ll never be able to get her back.

Lovely work from a supporting cast that hails from all over the globe; Liu’s Butterfly is both balletic and delicate, with a feisty will that doesn’t back down from a fight; and Durant brings comic relief as the tough, yet sweet and big-hearted, Bulldog. Den Dekker’s meek and timid Ava reveals inner strength as her longing for freedom for herself and her dancing children turns into action; and Bacchus’s Squib may be a hard-ass soldier serving the Minister, but is as much under his control as the others, and would choose otherwise.

Visually stunning, magical and moving, this Deaf-led, ground-breaking piece of storytelling resonates; both allowing Deaf audience to experience their culture on stage, and giving hearing audience a new perspective on how a story can be presented and communicated. Hearing audiences are used to using their ears to hear the music and dialogue; here, we see and feel the music, the vibrations physically resonating through our bodies and the rhythms dancing across our minds—all aimed at our hearts. And it’s a compelling reminder, for all of us, that love, colour and music are powerful weapons against the dark forces that haunt our everyday lives.

The Black Drum continues at the Young Centre until June 29; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

*Note: This production is presented with Written and Voice Synopsis & Audio Assist Devices and is accessible to non-ASL audiences.

Weaving projects across time & space – Steve Rockwell’s Folio exhibit @ Fran Hill Gallery

Artist Steve Rockwell’s exhibition Folio opened at Fran Hill Gallery (285 Rushton Rd., Toronto – St. Clair and Rushton Rd., west of Bathurst) on Thursday night. I wasn’t able to make it to the opening, so I dropped by last night to chat with Fran and Steve about the work.

Weaving projects across time and space, Steve Rockwell’s Folio exhibit combines some 25+ years of work and exploration. Here are just a few examples:

Text. From Meditations on Space, a narrative performance piece – later produced in a book detailing Rockwell’s exploration of and interactions in gallery storage spaces, recording his impressions in both text and photographs as he visited galleries in Toronto, LA, New York and locations in Europe. In the book, each gallery blurb is a short text piece, about the length of a tweet – only, in this case, the experience was physical instead of virtual – each one a funny, surprising and detailed description of his interaction with gallery owners and the space. And the photographs include some whimsical shots of his self-portrait in the storage spaces.

Background. A collage of pages from dART INTERNATIONAL magazine, of which Rockwell is the founding editor and publisher, publishing two to three times a year.

Colour. Rockwell’s Color Match board game, where players receive a predetermined number of coloured cardboard tiles and place them on a square board divided into a grid to create a multi-coloured, mosaic-like pattern. The judge of the game can be randomly selected from the crowd in the space where the game is being played. Unlike conventional board games, players do not accumulate things – they contribute – and there are no winners or losers. Turn over the colour tiles and each has a name and I.D. number – names like “Antidote,” “Stop!” and “Game Over.” Color Match was played on buses during Nuit Blanche 2006 in Toronto and you can see an example of pieces created using Colour Match in Art Gallery of Ontario advertising – framed works hung on the wall of the room in the photograph. Keep an eye out for upcoming Color Match tournaments at Fran Hill Gallery in Toronto and elsewhere. You never know when a match might pop up.

Concept. Rockwell’s Gallery Space 1988 project started with gallery folks locating their gallery on a grid, also indicating on their grid sheet which “wall” of the space the door should go on (north, south, east or west side of the square). The visual/spatial data gathered via these grid sheets (collected in a bound volume as part of that exhibit) culminated in the creation of a 3-D floor plan model. The resulting maze-like piece identifies each gallery, the “doors” of each leading into another gallery. Information to connection.

The Folio exhibit is a series of 13 ¾” X 17” unframed, protectively coated pieces on paper, hung in such a way that each is set slightly away from the wall, moving banner-like with the air currents in the room. The four-colour grid used in each brings to mind the family standards of heraldry – like in Game of Thrones – and most include hand-written text, in black or white, from Meditations on Space. Others have no text, but the original magazine page text and images can be seen through the paint.

Rockwell is like a visual data analyst – collecting, deconstructing and creating works using the concepts of space, interaction, connection and colour. It’s a lot like life that way, really. And as we were chatting, he also told me about another interesting project – in this case, an edible one. Collaborating with restauranteur Saeed Mohamed, Rockwell created the dArt Burger, a BQM hamburger sandwich. The burger was deconstructed into The Pixilated dArt Burger for an installation piece – and I can only imagine what a delicious temptation that was for exhibit visitors. You can order the dArt Burger at BQM locations in Toronto on Ossington Ave. and Queen St. West.

Rockwell’s Folio exhibit is up at Fran Hill Gallery until May 19. Hours: Tuesday – Sunday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. or by appointment.

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Artist Steve Rockwell at Fran Hill Gallery for his Folio exhibit.
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Three pieces from the Folio exhibit – Steve Rockwell.
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A grouping of four pieces in Steve Rockwell’s Folio exhibit.
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Another selection of works from Folio – Steve Rockwell.
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My favourite of the Folio pieces – both for the colour and the hilarious text.