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.

Love letter to the universe – The De Chardin Project @ Theatre Passe Muraille

De-Chardin-with-Title small
Cyrus Lane & Maev Beaty – photo by Michael Cooper

“It’s a love story about the origins of the universe.”The De Chardin Project playwright Adam Seybold

When you enter the mainspace of Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) to see Adam Seybold’s Dora Mavor Moore-winning play The De Chardin Project, the space has been re-imagined, with the audience positioned around three sides of a central raised rectangular playing space, framed – like a box without sides. The colours red and black predominate; a single bare light bulb hangs in the centre and several focused beams of light shine onto the floor from above. Centre stage, a man in a black suit lies on his stomach. Still. An otherworldly soundtrack plays, like wind chimes – industrial and celestial at the same time. And something else. Wind? Water? Both. The music crescendos into a thunderstorm. The man stirs. And rises, wondering where he is, the soundscape evoking the haze of emerging consciousness.

Directed by Alan Dilworth, The De Chardin Project mines the life and experiences of Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), geologist, paleontologist and Jesuit priest, a man devoted to the study of rocks and bones in a passionate effort to understand the origins of the universe. A man of God and a man of science, his refusal to renounce evolution theory – and reconcile it with creationism – gained negative attention from Rome and forced his order to exile him to China, where he participated in the discovery of the Peking Man. Seybold’s script excavates the personal for the universal – and no matter where you stand on the origins of the universe, the result is a fascinating and emotional experience.

De Chardin (Cyrus Lane) is dying from a cerebral hemorrhage, a broken tea cup on the floor the only artifact of his life in the space he now occupies. He is like Schrodinger’s cat in the box – both alive and dead. From a trap door in the floor, a woman appears. She is his Guide (Maev Beaty), who sets out to usher him through seminal moments of his life in order to piece it back together.

Lane is luminous as de Chardin, scholarly and confident but not arrogant, quick-witted and driven. We see a man full of love – for God, the universe. Everything. Lonely in the space between creationism and evolution theory, and sad that he cannot touch that which he seeks – yet optimistic in the face of rejection and misunderstanding, even as he struggles to be so. Beaty is lovely as the Guide, cryptic but warm and open. Also tasked with playing various characters from de Chardin’s life, she gives a remarkable performance throughout, portraying people of various ages, genders and nationalities. As de Chardin’s friend and colleague Lucille, an American artist, she is beautifully sharp and irreverently funny. Like de Chardin, she is full of longing, but more grounded in the physical present than reaching through time and space for that which she cannot grasp.

The four elements figure prominently in this production – especially fire. Fire as an object of fear, transformation, destruction, illumination, desire and symbol. The spark of creation. The elements are incorporated into the remarkable set design, with various trap doors housing props, furniture and even spaces: an excavation site, a pitcher of water, a candle. Shouts to Lorenzo Savoini (production design) and Thomas Ryder Payne (sound design).

The De Chardin Project is a profoundly moving and human exploration of faith and science, love and the search for meaning in the universe.

Speaking as a recovering Catholic, I was left both moved and intrigued, my eyes wet and mind full. But that’s just me – you’ll have to go see for yourself. Let me know what you think. In the meantime, take a look at some behind the scenes moments here:

The De Chardin Project continues its run at the TPM mainspace until December 14. Go see this.