Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce & funny Sound of the Beast

Tamyka Bullen (onscreen) & Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Hear ye, hear ye

let it be known,

No one on my block walks alone.

 

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) closes its 2016-17 season with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s (aka Belladonna the Blest) Sound of the Beast, co-directed by Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram, with ASL components by Tamyka Bullen, and featuring composition and sound design by David Mesiha. Sound of the Beast opened in the TPM Backspace last night.

Inspired by the story of Tunisian rapper Weld El 15, whose artistic freedom of speech was muzzled by police and government, and part of St. Bernard’s 54ology (her commitment to create a performance piece from each country in Africa), Sound of the Beast combines rap and spoken word with lived experiences for an up-close, profoundly personal and resonant performance. Complementing St. Bernard’s storytelling is a projected performance of Tamyka Bullen’s poetry, performed in ASL with English surtitles (projection design by Cameron Davis). And a series of radio voice-overs (Glyn Bowerman), updating us on news of an “incident” in a “priority neighbourhood,” provide a bleak commentary on the clueless, one-sided and white-washed view of mainstream media.

Autobiographical, observational and replete with first-hand lives lived in an environment of racism, mistrust and injustice, words and stories that we may only have read or seen on the news come to life. Urgent. Shocking. In front of us. What is the most shocking is that stories of oppression and injustice are not shocking, but part of our everyday lives.

Sound of the Beast
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

A compelling and engaging storyteller, St. Bernard shifts easily from pointed remarks and calling out prejudice, to casual and conversational moments. She puts forth hypothetical scenarios and asks us how we would respond; making us active participants as we silently think about the choices in front of us. And during two poignant and charged scenes, she speaks to her imaginary young son; guiding him on how to behave, speak and even set his facial expressions in order to stay safe out there when confronted by the authorities. At times speaking to us as friends, she takes us in and along on her journey—her research on Weld El, her personal experiences—genuine, infuriating, heartbreaking, hilarious. Shifting from a stand-up storytelling vibe, to in our faces or in emcee performance mode, St. Bernard moves through the space with ease and fluidity, with professionalism and personality. Singing and speaking with strength, emotion and moving beats, her job is to tell it—and she brings it big time.

Speaking as a Deaf woman born into a “hearing Indian-Guyanese Hindu-Christian family”—and living in a “hearing, straight Eurocentric Christian patriarchal country,” Bullen’s poetry is beautiful, moving and revealing. Highlighting the intersectionality of experiences of oppression and prejudice among the Black and Deaf communities, she points to how heavy unemployment and underemployment leave marginalized people struggling to get by in a system that “operates for so long based on ignorance and hate.” Writing of poverty, PTSD, the immigrant experience and her relationship with the earth, Bullen reminds us of the ever present need for mindfulness, awareness and compassion—and how we are all we are all born of the same Mother Earth.

Coiled on the floor and ready, the microphone is St. Bernard’s weapon and bridge; and the black hoodie she dons at the opening of her performance and sheds at the close is her storytelling cloak. If you are not black or marginalized, you can only glean so much from what you see and hear in the news about these lived experiences. Of being constantly under surveillance because of the colour of your skin and the neighbourhood you live in. Of being questioned by law enforcement for no reason. Of being misunderstood and not knowing what you’re supposed to say. Of unarmed youth being shot by police. Sound of the Beast brings it in closer. Come and hear for yourself.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce and funny Sound of the Beast.

Sound of the Beast continues in the TPM Backspace until May 7; book tickets online or call 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a powerful show and an intimate space.

SummerWorks: Delightful, magical story time with Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales

children's talesThis year’s SummerWorks has been full of opportunities to see and hear some imaginative, unique pieces of storytelling – and Erin Fleck’s Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales, directed by Maya Rabinovitch, is a brilliant example.

A young man brings light to his darkened town. A very cranky pony named Heathcliff falls in love with the mistress of the household at his new home. A man named Sam is fascinated by the post. The ghost of a murdered young woman haunts an opulent underwater ballroom.

The audience is enveloped in the atmosphere of story time; the Studio of the Lower Ossington Theatre has been transformed into a large tent made from bed sheets, with quilts, blankets and cushions creating part of the audience seating space on the floor, and a small table with a lamp and various curios. An overhead projector presents several images, with multiple transparencies causing images to morph: three stag heads become three stag skulls; a clock appears and dissolves; and a cuckoo clock materializes, followed by framed pictures, a window and a table in a quiet room.

Then, using transparencies and overhead projection, and paper articulated shadow puppets, four tellers retrieve a sheaf of paper from various places in the room and read the stories. And they are marvelous – the stories and the storytellers. With shouts to puppeteers/tellers Talia DelCogliano, Erin Fleck, Michelle Urbano and Brian Webber. The cast also includes a roster of guest narrators: Glyn Bowerman, Sascha Cole, Marcus Jamin and Jordi Mand (I believe Jamin was the guest last night).

With shouts to the design team: Sarah Fairlie, Fleck and Daniel Briere (puppets), Roxanne Ignatius (set) and Pip Bradford (lighting); and to Fairlie for video art direction and Brad Casey for music direction.

Unintentionally Depressing Children’s Tales is a delightful, magical piece of storytelling fun – quirky, darkly funny and thoroughly enjoyable.

There’s one more performance: tonight (Sun, Aug 17) at 7 p.m.