A lesser known perspective of WWI in the compelling, eye-opening, thought-provoking Gods Like Us

Zazu Oke & Vince Deiulis. Set construction by Erica Causi. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Kelsi Dewhurst.

 

Theatre Nidãna challenges what we think we know about WWI as it commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice of the First World War, giving us a little known perspective with the world premiere of Gods Like Us. An allegory that incorporates a traditional Nigerian lullaby and storytelling, and original music (composed by Nathan Radke and played by Mark Whale), Gods Like Us was devised by Zazu Oke and Vince Deiulis, who both perform in this compelling, eye-opening and thought-provoking two-hander; opening last night in the Factory Theatre Studio.

It’s November 1917, and a Canadian Recruiter (Vince Deiulis) approaches a Nigerian yam Farmer (Zazu Oke) in hopes of convincing him to join the Allied forces in their campaign to push back the Germans’ advance in East Africa. Taking a sales pitch angle on the ask, the Recruiter offers money, promising the Farmer increased status and respect within the village—and the ultimate advanced status of being “like us” (white men).

However, the British army—and by extension the Recruiter—have erred on gauging their audience. Assuming they’d be addressing uneducated, simple-minded African villagers who know nothing of the outside world, the Recruiter is faced with an intelligent, socially aware man who has personal, direct knowledge of the actual “opportunity” he’s being offered. Black men are not taken on as soldiers, but as carriers; and being denied a weapon, how are they to defend themselves? And the enhanced status pitch is inaccurate at best and at worst a lie.

The Farmer tells the Recruiter the story of the Tortoise and the Birds; the Birds are tricked by the Tortoise’s sweet words into helping him, only to find themselves cheated out of their promised reward. Instead of being helpless victims of a swindle, the Birds plot and get their revenge on the Tortoise—forever marking him as a crooked creature. While the Recruiter is charmed by the tale, he clearly doesn’t get the connection to their current circumstance.

As the Recruiter struggles to control his soldier’s heart (PTSD) episodes, the Farmer grapples with his anger at the sheer nerve and hypocrisy of his request. A British protectorate, the colonization of Nigeria has come at great, and tragic, personal and economic cost to its people. The Farmer has lost his family; and the farm is hanging by a thread as he tries to scrape by, selling his produce at lower prices to the British compared to what he could earn from his former German customers. Why should the Farmer fight for those who’ve done nothing but take from him and his people? And when the tone of the debate shifts from a battle of wits to playful wager to enraged face-off, the Farmer finds himself facing a moral choice: Does he use the power at his disposal to take revenge or does he let it go?

Riveting performances from Deiulis and Oke in this intimate tale of war, colonialism and race relations; the two-hander dynamic serving as a microcosm of the larger picture. Deiulis leaves us some room for empathizing with the Recruiter, who is under orders and navigating PTSD; but our sympathy for him only goes so far. Avoiding a sleazy, snake oil salesman approach, the Recruiter uses more friendly, insidious means to get the “natives” to sign on. Toeing the company line in his promise of white, god-like status, the Recruiter is entirely clueless to the fact that he’s adding serious insult to mortal injury. Oke is both impressive and heartbreaking as the Farmer. In deep mourning for the loss of his family and struggling to keep the farm—and himself—alive, the Farmer is patient and hospitable with the Recruiter; but his civility is tested when the Recruiter keeps pushing the Allies’ agenda, bringing the Farmer’s painful history of oppression and loss to the surface, and forcing him to push back.

Lesser known stories like this one need to be told. One has to wonder, had there been any attempt at reconciliation and reparation—and approached as a connection of equals and true partners—maybe prospective Nigerian recruits would have had a real reason to risk their lives in this war. But this observation is, of course, made through a 2018 lens. And while we honour those who served, we must also acknowledge and appreciate those who were unable to serve, or whose service was minimized, or coaxed or coerced with bait and switch methods, due to the colour of their skin.

Gods Like Us continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until November 17; advance tickets available online, or by calling 416-504-9971 or visiting the box office (125 Bathurst Street, Adelaide Street Entrance).

In the meantime, check out Oke and Deiulis’s Stageworthy Podcast interview with host Phil Rickaby.

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Assumptions, uncertainty & paranoia in powerful, eye-opening Refuge

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Pamela Mala Sinha & Andrea Davis in Refuge – photos by John Lauener

There’s a heart-wrenching and thought-provoking piece of socio-political theatre running in the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace right now: Nightwood Theatre’s production of Mary Vingoe’s Refuge, directed by Kelly Thornton. The play was inspired in part by the award-winning CBC Radio documentary Habtom’s Path by Mary Lynk, as well as Vingoe’s personal experiences tutoring a woman from Ethiopia and hosting a Chinese student in her home. Refuge is presented in association with Amnesty International.

Community immigrant support group member Pamela Ross (Pamela Mala Sinha) tutors East African refugee Amleset Zerisenai (Andrea Davis) in English, and learns that Amleset’s son Ayinom, an army deserter, has been detained for arriving in the country without papers. She enlists the aid of immigration lawyer Saul Ackerman (Jason Weinberg), who eventually convinces her to take Ayinom in – much to the dismay of her husband Allan (Ryan Hollyman). With the assistance of interpreter Mebrahtu (Raïs Muoi), Ayinom gains a friend and a job. Shifting between past and present, Pamela, Saul and Mebrahtu are interviewed by a CBC interviewer (Mary Francis Moore) about Ayinom’s story.

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Mary Francis Moore & Raïs Muoi in Refuge

We never see Ayinom – but his presence is felt strongly throughout. We never get a full picture of this young man, perceived as mysterious in that relatively little is known about him. Without documentation, authorities and allies must rely on first- and second-hand accounts of his status and character – an uncertain situation that provokes more questions than answers, as well as paranoia in a post-911 world. Exacerbating this is Pamela and Saul’s personal and legal history with the Air India bombing disaster, where Pamela lost her grandparents. Ayinom’s anxious mother describes him as a “good boy,” but we also learn from Mebrahtu that he was an uneducated young man, drafted into the army and handed a gun, and there are conflicting accounts of his rank and activities. And Ayinom’s quiet, unassuming personality gives them pause as well: is it due to the shock of the horrors of war and the long, terrible journey to get away – or is he up to something?

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Pamela Mala Sinha & Jason Weinberg in Refuge

Nice work from the cast in this quiet, tension-filled piece. Stand-outs include Sinha, who brings an understated nuance to Pamela Ross’s inner conflict. Her head is at odds with her heart; and despite a reluctance to take Ayinom in, she wants to help Amleset and chooses to take a leap of faith and host him in her home – an undertaking that becomes even more challenging in the face of her husband’s growing paranoia and a complicated relationship with Saul. Weinberg’s Saul is a great combination of gruff charm and pragmatism on the outside with a warm-hearted centre that roots for the underdog. Beneath the bad jokes and sharp, realist attitude, he genuinely cares; like Pamela, Saul isn’t doing this so much for Ayinom as for someone he knows and cares about, and even though they have their doubts, they both want to believe in the good in this young man. Muoi is an informative delight as Mebrahtu; energetic, talkative and affable, he lays out the facts of the brutal situation in East Africa in a matter-of-fact, but never clinical, way. He doesn’t know Ayinom well, and they became close friends, but even he only knows what he’s been told and what he translates from Ayinom’s diary. And we get the sense that even he’s not sure what Ayinom is about.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Refuge is the physical absence of a key character. Ayinom is lacking (a word Pamela is teaching Amleset) in the action, but his presence is felt nevertheless. He is cared about, theorized about, talked about. But we never hear directly from him. We gather from others that he is a beloved son, a social cause, a refugee claimant under suspicion, a friend. He is determined, hard-working and well-liked, but quiet, solitary and uncommunicative. He has survived the bloodshed of war, travelled thousands of miles, enduring unknown and unspeakable horrors along the way. Ayinom is a young man seeking a better life, going through hell to get out of a horrific situation in his home country only to be put through a fresh kind of hell in the new country he longs to call home.

With shouts to set/costume designer Laura Gardner for the striking set design, with its cold whites and greys, footprints in the snow, and highly effective screen projections on fabric ‘walls’: the beautiful, eerie tree silhouettes and raging sea.

Assumptions, uncertainty and paranoia in the powerful, eye-opening Refuge.

Refuge continues at the Tarragon Extraspace until May 8; you can purchase advance tix online.

Check out the trailer: