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.

 

Mothers & daughters, & love, separation & forgiveness in funny, thoughtful, moving How Black Mothers Say I Love You

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Ordena Thompson, Allison Edwards-Crewe & Robinne Fanfair in How Black Mothers Say I Love You – photos by Idil Jeilani

Six years in the making, writer/producer/motivational speaker Trey Anthony had a dream to write and produce a play about black mothers, particularly black mothers who left their children behind as they searched for a better life, an experience that is painfully familiar to her. Anthony joined forces with producer Carys Lewis to form Girls In Bow Ties, a company dedicated to telling “the untold stories of unconventional women,” with a “focus on work that gives voice to women of colour through theatre and film productions, arts-focused youth outreach programs, as well as mentoring and training to young, female artists of colour.”

In May 2016, the dream became reality, as Girls With Bow Ties mounted Anthony’s How Black Mothers Say I Love You, directed by Anthony and opening last night in the Factory Theatre Mainspace to a sold-out house.

Estranged from her family and living in Montreal for the past three years, Claudette (Robinne Fanfair) returns home to Toronto upon receiving news from her younger sister Valerie (Allison Edwards-Crewe) that their mother Daphne (Ordena Thompson) is coming to the end of her battle with cancer. Claudette’s arrival is unexpected for Daphne and a relief to Valerie, who has been juggling work, a husband and a sick mother. There is immediate tension in the household, and not only due to Claudette’s sexuality, which Daphne disapproves of and Valerie doesn’t get. Claudette gives voice to her feelings of betrayal and abandonment when their mother left them with their grandmother in Jamaica for six years as she set up a new life in Canada – a life that came to include a new man and a third daughter, Chloe (Jewelle Blackman). And when Claudette and Valerie finally joined their mother in Toronto, they found resentment and disdain from their new father, and a mother preoccupied with their frail, sickly new sister.

It’s a bittersweet family reunion, and the two older sisters have some major catching up to do, with Claudette still smarting from her recent breakup with her girlfriend and Valerie’s marriage in serious trouble. Daphne is not one for talking about feelings or dwelling in the past; she did what she had to do and what she thought was best to get herself and her daughters out of dire circumstances and into a better life. Taking comfort in the Bible, her prayer group and church services, she waits for death and lives in the hope of being reunited with Chloe, who drifts about Daphne’s home, silent but for the moving, evocative violin music she plays.

Combining dance (in the prologue, choreographed by Irma Villafuerte) and original music (written/produced by Gavin Bradley) with comedy and family drama, How Black Mothers Say I Love You is a highly entertaining and poignant piece of storytelling, featuring stand-out performances from the cast. Thompson gives a compelling and hilarious performance as the no-nonsense, sharply funny Daphne, who is a force to be reckoned with, even as she lives with terminal cancer. A solid Christian woman who abides no foolishness, she lives in the here and now, and any hardships she faces are not dwelled upon and are spoken of matter-of-factly, if at all. Common sense, as evidenced by sayings and sage words from back home, rule in her house. Do your best and let God do the rest. Daphne’s approach to life proves to be the opposite of her daughter Claudette’s – and Fanfair gives a lovely, multi-layered performance of a daughter who had to leave home to live a life of her choosing, returning to support her family, and longing to find closure and connection with her mother before it’s too late. Strong and brave, out and proud, yet so vulnerable and struggling with commitment issues, she’s torn between nursing old wounds and getting on with her life as she strives to advocate for herself, her life and her sister – demanding acknowledgment of their being left, neglected and unwanted, only to be forgotten in the face of the new favourite Chloe when their mother brought them to Canada.

Edwards-Crewe does a great job with the many facets of Valerie, who is in the unenviable position of family peacemaker and buffer. Caught in the middle of the ongoing battles between her mother and sister, who she loves, she is desperately struggling to stay positive and keep a brave face as she navigates her own critical situation at home. Longing for a baby even as her marriage is crumbling around her, she can’t help but wonder if marrying a white man (also her boss) was a mistake and hates herself for it. She is glad her sister is there to help with their dying mother, but why can’t everyone just get along? And the multi-talented Blackman brings a sense of light and fragility to the ethereal Chloe, whose presence and music brings comfort to Daphne – memories of what was and hope for what may be; and her command of the violin and this music has a hauntingly beautiful and heart-wrenching effect.

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Ordena Thompson & Jewelle Blackman

Last night’s opening played to an enthusiastic, packed house full of friends, family, colleagues and fans – and featured a pre-show introduction and welcome from Anthony, who also gave a post-show introduction to the production and creative team, as well as her mother and sister, who received a marriage proposal onstage! Trey Anthony can drop the mic on this one – opening night festivities don’t get any better than that.

It’s particularly fitting and gratifying to be posting this on Mother’s Day. We’re reminded that, even though we may not always approve of or understand their choices (nor they ours), our mothers strive to do the best they can under the circumstances in order to give us our best chance. And although they may not always – if ever – put it into words, mothers show their love through their sacrifices, their actions and even their nagging. Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there.

Mothers and daughters, and love, separation and forgiveness in the funny, thoughtful and moving How Black Mothers Say I Love You.

How Black Mothers Say I Love You continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until May 15; the run is nearly sold out, so get your tix in advance.

You can also keep up with How Black Mothers Say I Love You on Facebook. Check out the trailer and also check out the longer version, which includes a look behind the scenes: