Truth & reconciliation through music, one step at a time, in the inspirational, intersectional I Call myself Princess

Marion Newman & Aaron Wells. Set design by Christine Urquhart. Costume design by Snezana Pesic. Lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Paper Canoe Projects and Cahoots Theatre join forces with Native Earth to present Jani Lauzon’s I Call myself Princess, directed by Marjorie Chan, with associate director Keith Barker and music direction by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. History, biography, opera, and truth and reconciliation combine in this inspirational, intersectional tale of two Indigenous opera singers connecting across time and space in a journey of discovery, identity and bridging the gap between peoples one step at a time. The show opened to a packed house at the Aki Studio last night.

When opera student William (Aaron Wells), a gay Métis man, moves from Winnipeg to Toronto to study on a scholarship, his work on a production of Shanewis (The Robin Woman), 100-year-old “Indian Opera,” turns into a journey of discovery, revelation and mystical connection. Dropping clues into his path is the spirit of Tsianina Redfeather (Marion Newman), whose life and experience inspired and informed the opera, written by white composer Charles Wakefield Cadman (Richard Greenblatt) and white librettist Nelle Eberhart (Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster).

Borrowing from Indigenous music, filtered through the colonial lens of well-meaning, but unaware white artists, the opera seems hokey and embarrassing by today’s standards in terms of its cultural appropriation, and romanticized, homogenized presentation of Indigenous culture. And as he delves deeper into its history—consulting mainly the works of white academics—Will finds himself increasingly uncomfortable rehearsing it. His numerous calls to the Dean falling into a voicemail black hole, he reaches out for support from his boyfriend Alex back home (Howard Davis)—who’s overwhelmed with shift work, business school and looking after his family—and finds he’s on his own. Until Tsianina appears. An Indigenous opera singer from the past, she shows him the path she chose and the part she played in putting Shanewis on the stage.

Lovely, compelling work from this cast, featuring some impressive vocal chops. In an artfully balanced performance that features soaring mezzo soprano vocals, Newman’s Tsianina is playfully mischievous and possessing the wisdom of an elder; part colleague, part spirit guide on Will’s journey of identity and expression. Understanding that sharing truth and effecting change take time, Tsianina is patient and circumspect as she works on the opera—growing and earning respect as an artist, but holding back as she gauges what her non-Indigenous colleagues and audiences are ready for. Turning down two opportunities to perform at the Met, sees her work as a balance between self-expression and truth-telling—and making connections, step by step. Wells adeptly navigates Will’s inner conflict and serves up passionate, robust vocal performances. Personal and professional challenges collide, and Will struggles to be truth to himself and his drive for artistic expression and career, and his Indigenous heritage as he struggles with the content of the opera.

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Richard Greenblatt, Aaron Wells, Marion Newman, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Howard Davis. Set design by Christine Urquhart. Costume design by Snezana Pesic. Lighting design by Kaitlin Hickey. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Rounding out the intersectional angle of the piece are Greenblatt’s Charles, a gay man navigating his personal and professional life during a time when being out was suicide; and Ch’ng Lancaster’s Nelle, who like Tsianina must keep the public’s preparedness (in her case, for a female librettist) in mind. Greenblatt and Ch’ng Lancaster do a commendable job with Charles’ and Nelle’s personal arcs—going from well-meaning, but patronizing and largely clueless in their support of Indigenous peoples to more respectful and thoughtful allies. And Davis’s Alex, a Black gay man who doesn’t read as Black due to his light skin tone, and who must deal daily with the outside perceptions and assumptions in a largely white population. In a performance that shows both strength and vulnerability, Davis gives us a loyal, passionate man who sacrifices much for those he loves, but must come to terms with the fact that, despite his best efforts, he can’t be all things to all people, all the time.

You can tell that a lot of love, work and thought went into the production design. The fringe on Christine Urquhart’s set, combining colonial and Indigenous elements, mirrors that of Tsianina’s costume; designed by Snezana Pesic, and built by Kinoo Arcentales (Yana Manta), with beading by playwright Jani Lauzon (who delivered the moccasins last night after working all night to finish the beading). And Marc Meriläinen’s sound design—drawing from Shanewis (The Robin Woman) and classical opera, as well as original compositions by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate and Jani Lauzon—immerses us in this world of music, cultural intersection and history.

Truth and reconciliation—step by step, in each connection, each collaboration, each brave act of expression.

I Call myself Princess continues at the Aki Studio until September 30. Get advance tickets online and go see it.

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Power, connection & identity in the potent, magical, eye-opening Watah Theatre Double Bill

“A world without fairy tales and myths would be as drab as life without music.”—The Watah Theatre

The Watah Theatre presents a Double Bill of biomythographies, including an excerpt reading of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Once Upon A Black Boy and the world premiere of Najla Nubyanluv’s I Cannot Lose My Mind, running in the Studio at Streetcar Crowsnest.

Once Upon A Black Boy, written and performed by d’bi.young anitafrika, opens with a mother singing to her infant son. Rocking him in her arms as she sings, she tells him he is beautiful and loved, enveloping him with encouragement and protection. When he grows into an energetic, self-involved (what teen is not?) 6’ tall 15-year-old, she must call him out on the condition of his room, slacking off on his chores and changing out of his uniform before he comes home from school. Because, now, she is afraid for him. She is afraid that others won’t see a 15-year-old child, but a scary, big Black man—and she’s terrified that assumptions based on fear, prejudice and racism could get him killed.

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d’bi.young anitafrika

Told through spoken word, song and a cast of multiple characters, Once Upon A Black Boy is as much about Black motherhood as it is about raising a Black son—and how Black bodies are treated differently in the face of systemic and institutional racism. Joyful and hopeful, then exasperated and deeply concerned, anitafrika’s performance covers the complex array of experience of a Black mother—longing and hoping for the best, but bracing and preparing for the worst. The mother also fears what may happen when she’s not around, from having to be at work and, even more importantly, if she were to get sick. Her sister has just been diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer, which we see played out when the sister visits the doctor to check out a lump and is instructed to keep an eye on it and return in six months.

Moving, insightful and peppered with playful comic moments—and filled with music and sharply-defined characters—anitafrika’s storytelling is both compelling and entertaining. I look forward to seeing where this story goes.

I Cannot Lose My Mind, written and performed by Najla Nubyanluv and directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, chronicles a Black womxn’s* quest to be rid of depression. Discovering an inexplicable mutual connection with a kind and helpful Black female therapist, the womxn finds she must also put up with the therapist’s questionable colleagues: two white male doctors who are happy to push pills onto their patients, including a hilarious list of possible side effects—but, oh, they have additional pills to take care of those too. Experiencing a dreamscape of shared connections with a group of seven women, some of whom were also being treated for depression—and including the therapist and her sweet, elderly receptionist—the womxn finds a bigger world outside her day-to-day life. Trouble is, the doctors have also discovered these mythological connections and want to harness the womxns’ collective power for themselves.

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Najla Nubyanluv

Telling the story through movement, song and a cast of characters, Nubyanluv weaves personal experience, dreams and mythology, creating a landscape of magical connections with a larger community as the womxn navigates therapy, medication and health care practitioners who don’t have her best interests in mind. Dressed in a goddess-like white gown, Nubyanluv gives a fluid, playful and mesmerizing performance. Connecting with the audience on a personal level as the story unfolds, she draws us into this world. This is what it’s like to experience depression—and struggle to get better and get your life back as you try to make sense of an often senseless world.

Both of these biomythographies demonstrate how anitafrika and Nubyanluv walk the talk of some of the key principles The Watah Theatre teaches its resident artists: Who are you? How are you? And what is your purpose? Theatre-making as self-discovery: the artist coming to the work as a human being, connecting with their lived experience, and then sharing that discovery as they connect with an audience. Making their lives as the make their art.

These stories also highlight the intersections of oppression, particularly the health care system’s failure to treat women of colour with equal respect and diligence. During the talkback that followed the performance, anitafrika also mentioned the importance of recognizing how we all perpetuate stigma ourselves, and to turn our focus away from how we are oppressed in our daily lives to how we propagate oppression. We need to examine power, not just how it’s exerted upon us, but how we exert our own power on others. Are we using our power for support and allyship—or to oppress and demean?

Power, connection and identity in the potent, magical, eye-opening Watah Theatre Double Bill.

The Watah Theatre Double Bill continues in the Streetcar Crowsnest Studio till February 17; advance tickets available online.

*This is The Watah Theatre’s preferred spelling of woman/women.