Tragic Indigenous love story & pointed satire in the profoundly moving, playful, poetic Almighty Voice and His Wife

 

James Dallas Smith & Michaela Washburn. Set & video design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Kinoo Arcentales. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Biography meets pointed satire in Soulpepper’s production of Daniel David Moses’ Almighty Voice and His Wife; directed by Jani Lauzon, who performed in the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s premiere production 28 years ago, the show is currently running at the Young Centre. Using the tragic Indigenous love story of real-life Cree runner and hunter Almighty Voice and his wife White Girl as a starting point, the storytelling shifts from linear narrative to cutting vaudevillian send-up as the play dives deep into the contemporary reverberations of the ongoing clashes between European and Indigenous ways of life—and the oppression, ignorance and stereotyping that go with it. Profoundly moving, playful and poetic, it’s a poignant and magical theatrical work featuring some uncomfortable truths and discomfiting comic jabs.

Almighty Voice (James Dallas Smith) and White Girl (Michaela Washburn) are magnetically drawn to each other, his playful courtship breaking through her stern sense of decorum. Although a very young woman, she’s nobody’s fool; her experience of the world forever changed by her time in a Residential School. And as he expresses baffled irreverence for the ways of the white settlers and government, transforming hunting grounds into farmland, she is haunted by the white man’s “glass god” who watches over everything they do. Both have been given European names by the white authorities: he has been called Jean-Baptiste and she Marie; a proud and respected Cree man, he insists on his true name, Almighty Voice.

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James Dallas Smith. Set & video design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Kinoo Arcentales. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Arrested for shooting a cow for a feast, when he sees a scaffold being erected outside the jail, Almighty Voice hears that he will hang for his crime—a cruel joke that sets into motion a series of tragic events. On the run from the law, White Girl insists on coming with him; and things go from bad to worse when he kills a Mountie in self-defence. When she becomes pregnant, she must let him go on alone while she returns to family to give birth to their child. In the end, he and two warrior friends are killed in a stand-off with 100 Mounties and a cannon, the two lovers getting a final glimpse of each other in visions at the moment of his death, his infant son left without a father and their people starving as hunting grounds are replaced with farmland.

Act II shifts into razor-sharp satire, structured as a vaudeville performance. Here, Ghost (Smith) is the spirit of Almighty Voice, at first acting as the disoriented straight man to the saucy uniformed Interlocutor (Washburn), then gradually getting more familiar and comfortable with the performance style. The antiquated slapstick and bawdy theatrics shine a glaring spotlight on ongoing historical and contemporary clashes between European settler culture and government and Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. Scathing social commentary makes for some uncomfortable moments of dark comedy, as the “Show Indian” performs traditional dances and situation comedy making fun of Indigenous Peoples, and takes hits for the entertainment of the masses. And then, the tables are turned—and all the horrible stereotypes, prejudice and name-calling generated by European oppressors against Indigenous Peoples reverse course and land squarely on the Interlocutor.

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Michaela Washburn. Set & video design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Kinoo Arcentales. Lighting design by Jennifer Lennon. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Beautiful, compelling performances from Smith and Washburn in this epic, poetic and profoundly moving piece of storytelling. Smith brings a playful, impish charm to the proud, determined Almighty Voice, sparking both comedy and passion alongside Washburn’s fierce, strong-willed, resilient White Girl. A perfect match of complementary, courageous kindred spirits, Almighty Voice’s irreverent, almost devil-may-care attitude is in stark contrast to his wife’s wary caution, borne of her lived experience at a Residential School. During Act II, the two actors demonstrate considerable comedic chops with vintage mercurial banter, slapstick antics and satirical characterizations. The comedy is dark, pointed and often discomfiting in its racist oppressor jibes at Indigenous Peoples. And a surprising transformation takes place as the tables are turned on the authoritarian soldier Interlocutor.

The evocative, well-crafted work of the design team is in great evidence here, creating an atmosphere of heightened reality and vaudevillian showmanship. Ken MacKenzie’s set and video design is particularly stunning; the backdrop of the set is from the point of view of looking up at the sky through the smoke hole of a teepee. And the glowing, shifting full moon projection adds to the magic, poetry and natural wonder inherent in the storytelling.

Uncomfortable truths told with an epic love story and sharp wit. Go see this.

Almighty Voice and His Wife continues at the Young Centre until November 10; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Last night’s (Tuesday) performance was sold out, so advance booking strongly recommended to avoid disappointment.

ICYMI: Spotlight on director Jani Lauzon in Intermission Magazine.

And check out the trailer:

 

Love, marriage, friendship & infidelity in the intensely intimate, brilliantly executed Betrayal

Virgilia Griffith & Ryan Hollyman. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper rounds out its summer programming with its intensely intimate, brilliantly executed production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, directed by Andrea Donaldson and running at the Young Centre. A compelling look at intricate, overlapping webs of lies and deceit, it’s a fascinating look at the dynamics of love and infidelity between a husband and wife, and the husband’s best friend—and the subsequent impact on the marriage, the friendship and the affair itself. Told in reverse chronology, we start with a meeting two years after the affair has ended and go back in time to finish at the moment it was initiated.

When we first see Emma (Virgilia Griffith) and Robert (Ryan Hollyman), they’re meeting for a drink two years after the end of their affair. Robert, also married with children, is the best friend of Emma’s husband Robert (Jordan Pettle). What follows is a brief history of the relationship, shifting from this somewhat awkward meeting, to the break-up, to the revelation, and back through the pseudo-domestic bliss of afternoons spent at their furnished apartment oasis, to the moment the affair starts. We also see Robert and Jerry spending time together, including their favourite Italian restaurant, where they’re served by a waiter who clearly knows them as regulars (Paolo Santalucia, delightfully familiar with an edge of attitude). Questions of who knew what and when are revealed, concealed and lied about throughout, with selective candour emerging at pivotal moments—by chance or on purpose?

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Ryan Hollyman & Jordan Pettle. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stunning performances all around in this tight, sharply drawn Pinter favourite. The three main characters are very smart—both culturally and intellectually—and, coupled with the fact that they’re all professionals in the British arts and culture scene, the cool, polite and cerebral nature of their banter-filled interactions belies the fiery, devil-may-care, primal passions within—and the accompanying loneliness and ennui that lead them astray. Griffith brings a self-possessed air of confidence to independent and enigmatic Emma; the most pragmatic and level-headed of the affair pairing, Emma’s participation seems to come more from a place of loneliness than passion. Hollyman’s Jerry is an affable combination of wit, enthusiasm and cluelessness; a man with a “talent for finding talent”, Jerry pursues Emma with the lyrical passion of a university freshman—then gets upset when he learns that his best friend knows he’s been having it off with his wife. This hypocrisy extends to Robert, played with cool, poker-faced detachment by Jordan Pettle; with razor-like precision, Robert reveals little and conceals much—and has been having affairs himself, possibly out of a sense of marital ennui.

Starting in 1977 and ending in 1968, the brilliant reverse chronological structure not only acts as a compelling rewind on the relationships, but serves as hindsight wisdom. The finely-tuned energy and pacing of the performances create the feeling of a fire gone out at the beginning, to a dying ember, to a spark at the beginning—a spark that, one imagines, has emerged from the dying embers of the two marriages. It is a thrilling, guilty pleasure to witness; and the up-close-and-personal intimacy of the piece makes the audience feel complicit in the cheating. And the outstanding efforts of the design team transport us to both time and place with impeccable attention to detail and flare: the teak furniture and print designs of Ken MacKenzie’s set and costumes; the enjoyable mix of late 60s and 70s music for the pre-show, and gripping original soundtrack from sound designer/composer Richard Feren; and Rebecca Picherack’s sharp, focused and atmospheric lighting design.

Betrayal continues at the Young Centre until September 25, the run was extended due to popular demand; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. This is an extremely popular production, with a packed house on a Tuesday night, so advance booking is strongly recommended.

ICYMI: Jordy Kieto interviews director Andrea Donaldson about the production in Intermission Magazine.

Department of Corrections: In the original posting, I neglected to mention actor Paolo Santalucia’ performance as the Waiter; this has been corrected.

The power of love, music & colour in the visually rich, magical, ground-breaking The Black Drum

Corinna Den Dekker, Dawn Jani Birley, Yan Liu & Daniel Durant. Set & props design by Ken Mackenzie. Costume design by Ruth Albertyn. Makeup by Angela McQueen. Video & projection design by Laura Warren. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Commissioned and produced by the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf, the Deaf Culture Centre presents the world premiere of Adam Pottle’s Deaf musical The Black Drum,* in partnership with Soulpepper at the Young Centre. Directed by Mira Zuckermann, assisted by Jack Volpe, with movement and choreography by Patricia Allison, The Black Drum combines signed music, dance, movement and projected imagery to tell the story of a woman’s journey through loss and grief to find the power of her inner music, as her tattoos come to life and launch her into a strange, dark world dominated by a sinister force. The result is a visually rich, magical and ground-breaking piece of storytelling.

As the story begins, we are introduced to the Minister (Bob Hiltermann), a sinister and controlling presence who dominates a world devoid of music, laughter, love and freedom. Meanwhile, performing artist Joan (Dawn Jani Birley) is reeling from the loss of her beloved wife Karen (Agata Wisny), inconsolable as her roommates Bree (Yan Liu) and Oscar (Daniel Durant) try to reach through her grief. Propelled into the world of the Minister, Joan’s tattoos Butterfly (Liu) and Bulldog (Durant)—beauty and strength—come to life.

In this dark, grim and desolate place, Joan encounters the Minister’s reluctant lieutenant Squib (Natasha C. Bacchus) and Ava (Corinna Den Dekker), who dances with a group of children (Jaelyn Russell-Lillie, Sita Weereatne and Abbey Jackson-Bell). Ava tells Joan that the Minister controls this world, a place between life and death, with magic—his black drum (drum accompaniment by Dimitri Kanaris), the embodiment of his empty black heart. And Joan also learns that Karen is the Minister’s prisoner. Charged with using her colour and music, Joan sets out with her friends to defeat the Minister and free her beloved from his clutches.

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Agata Wisny & Bob Hiltermann. Set & props design by Ken Mackenzie. Costume design by Ruth Albertyn. Makeup by Angela McQueen. Video & projection design by Laura Warren. Lighting design by Chris Malkowski. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Hiltermann brings a nightmarish, supernatural edge to the menacing, arrogant Minister; his sharp-featured white face mirrored by the spooky talking head projections that flank the stage—occasionally speaking they guide us through the story (voice acting by Raquel Duffy and Diego Matamoros). Birley’s performance as Joan beautifully weaves the devastation of grief with the perseverance of resistance as Joan strives to free Karen, despite the fact that she’ll never be able to get her back.

Lovely work from a supporting cast that hails from all over the globe; Liu’s Butterfly is both balletic and delicate, with a feisty will that doesn’t back down from a fight; and Durant brings comic relief as the tough, yet sweet and big-hearted, Bulldog. Den Dekker’s meek and timid Ava reveals inner strength as her longing for freedom for herself and her dancing children turns into action; and Bacchus’s Squib may be a hard-ass soldier serving the Minister, but is as much under his control as the others, and would choose otherwise.

Visually stunning, magical and moving, this Deaf-led, ground-breaking piece of storytelling resonates; both allowing Deaf audience to experience their culture on stage, and giving hearing audience a new perspective on how a story can be presented and communicated. Hearing audiences are used to using their ears to hear the music and dialogue; here, we see and feel the music, the vibrations physically resonating through our bodies and the rhythms dancing across our minds—all aimed at our hearts. And it’s a compelling reminder, for all of us, that love, colour and music are powerful weapons against the dark forces that haunt our everyday lives.

The Black Drum continues at the Young Centre until June 29; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

*Note: This production is presented with Written and Voice Synopsis & Audio Assist Devices and is accessible to non-ASL audiences.

A big fun, magical ride for kids of all ages with the imaginative, wonder-filled Peter Pan

Clockwise, from the top: Matt Pilipiak, Victor Pokinko, Fiona Sauder, Lena Maripuu & Landon Doak. Production design by Amy Marie Wallace. Lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

 

Bad Hats Theatre returns to the Young Centre, adding a sprinkle of magic fairy dust to the holidays with its Dora award-winning stage adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Adapted by Fiona Sauder and Reanne Spitzer, directed by Severn Thompson, with choreography by Reanne Spitzer, music by Landon Doak, and arrangements by Nathan Carroll and the company, this low-tech, highly imaginative version of the beloved children’s classic promises magic, fun and wonder for kids of all ages.

From its genesis as Co-Artistic Director Fiona Sauder’s dream project, first produced by Bad Hats at the Old Flame, a brewery in Port Perry, to a five-brewery tour in Toronto the following winter, Peter Pan first landed at the Young Centre in 2017, when Soulpepper invited the company to perform in its holiday time Family Festival. The production went on to win Dora awards for Outstanding Ensemble, Direction and Production.

Part story time, part dress-up, part musical—all magic and imagination—Peter Pan draws us in with joy, make believe and a child-like sense of play that starts before the show gets underway, with the ensemble emerging for some live music and fun with the kids sitting on the mats along the front of the horseshoe seating arrangement. Best. Pre-show. Ever.

Our grown-up narrator (Matt Pilipiak, with fun in his heart and a twinkle in his eye, going on to play the shy, soft-spoken Mr. Smee) sets the stage; and we watch as Peter (Fiona Sauder, with boyish swashbuckling bravado and impish mischief) enters the Darling home through the nursery window in search of his AWOL shadow. A lover of stories, he’s been listening at the window as Wendy (played with a lovely combination of grown-up earnestness, and childhood fun and romance by Lena Maripuu) tells stories and plays games of dress-up adventure with her younger brothers John (little gentleman, full of fun Victor Pokinko) and Michael (Richard Lam, brimming with adorable wide-eyed wonder, in the role till Dec 16; followed by Landon Doak in the role).

A sprinkle of fairy dust and a happy thought send the Darling children into flight with Peter and his fairy BFF Tinkerbell (the spritely, feisty, don’t you dare cross her Reanne Spitzer, who also plays Mrs. Darling and a Pirate) to their address at second star to the right and straight on till morning: Neverland. Joining the Lost Boys (great high-energy, comic fun turns from Jocelyn Adema, Andrew Cameron, Matthew Finlan and Tal Shulman, who all double as the rough and tumble, fun-loving Pirates), Peter and the Darling boys adopt Wendy as their new storytelling mother. Meanwhile, Captain Hook (played with hilariously evil camp by Graham Conway, who does double duty as Mr. Darling) is out to avenge his lost hand, and plots to find Peter Pan’s secret hideaway, and kidnap his friends to lure him into a trap. All the while, Hook is pursued by the crocodile that ate his hand, its whereabouts given away by the tick tock of the clock it also managed to swallow.

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Fiona Sauder & Graham Conway. Production design by Amy Marie Wallace. Lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Photo by Nicholas Porteous.

Sword fights, a jealous fairy turned hero and a stalking, hungry croc ensue—and good prevails over evil, with determination, pluck and ingenuity. And it’s a bittersweet moment when the Darling children return home to the nursery, in part because it also signals the end of this magical journey for us. The kids in the audience are a huge part of the fun of this show; and one or two even get a chance to get in on the fun. I dare you to not stomp your feet along with the music—and believe in magic and fairies.

Peter Pan continues at the Young Centre into the New Year, until January 5. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Booking in advance is strongly recommended to avoid disappointment. Bringing a kid isn’t mandatory, but it will ramp up your fun if you’re joined by a young friend. Go see this!

Check out the trailer, featuring highlights from this multi-talented, energetic ensemble:

 

Keep an eye out for Bad Hats Theatre, who are cooking up a new children’s tale for an upcoming musical brewery tour; check out their website for details, and give them a follow on their social media channels.

 

The incendiary impact of one man’s struggle in the ring in the electric, gut-punching The Royale

Dion Johnstone. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsey. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper transports us to 1905, where an African-American boxer tests his mettle against the formerly retired white heavyweight champion, with incendiary results that reach far beyond the two men in the ring. This is the electric, gut-punching Canadian premiere of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, inspired by the true story of Jack Johnson, directed by Guillermo Verdecchia and running at the Young Centre.

Determined to better his personal best of being crowned African-American Heavyweight Champion, boxer Jay “The Sport” Jackson sets his sights on being heavyweight champion of the world, convincing fight promoter Max (Diego Matamoros) to arrange a contest between him and retired Champ Bixby; a tall order, as the sport is segregated and a Black fighter has never faced a white fighter in the ring. As Jackson trains for the historic match with his manager Wynton (Alexander Thomas) and new sparring partner Fish (Christef Desir), a visit from his sister Nina (Sabryn Rock) forces him to consider the sociopolitical and personal impacts of this match—especially if he wins.

While insisting that the focus of his lonely ambition and sacrifice is about personal excellence and universal recognition as heavyweight champ, Jay gradually finds himself unable to continue shrugging off the racial and political—and personal—implications of his endeavour. And it’s not until the final charged scene in the ring with the Champ that we realize the great personal stakes driving him—and where he struggles with himself and against a long, violent history of systemic racism and oppression.

Incorporating hip hop-inspired beats and rhythms (composer and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne), and fight choreography (Simon Fon) that focuses on both the physicality and mental state of the fighter—The Royale creates the music in the boxing ring (set and costumes by Ken MacKenzie) with movement, sound and dialogue that reflects the voice inside the fighter’s head with present, primal ferocity and cocky self-assuredness. All of this in 90 minutes and six compelling rounds of storytelling—and while there are no actual physical blows exchanged, the result is both mind-blowing and gut-wrenching—punctuated by the rhythmic soundscape and startling, atmospheric lighting design (Michelle Ramsey).

Breath-taking work from the ensemble in this intense, profoundly human story. Johnstone gives a charismatic and intensely focused performance as the ambitious, hard-working Jackson; confident, flirtatious and driven, while Jackson’s deflection of personal questions appears to be a shrewd PR move to drive public curiosity, we learn he has a far more urgent reason for protecting his privacy. Johnstone’s Jackson is nicely matched by Desir’s youthful, hungry Fish; an up and coming young fighter who’s impressed Jackson in the ring, Fish is grateful for the opportunity to quit his day job, and becomes a loyal and generous supporter and colleague on the road to Jackson’s life-changing match.

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Dion Johnstone & Sabryn Rock. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsey. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Thomas exudes warmth, wisdom and pragmatic good humour as Wynton; more than just Jackson’s manager and trainer, Wynton is a friend and mentor—and the play’s title comes from his story as a young fighter, at a place where a young Black man could make one to two weeks’ wages in an unusual fight match where the winner takes all. Rock is a force to be reckoned with as Jackson’s sister Nina; fiercely protective of her family and acutely aware of the implications of Jackson’s ambitions, Nina sees what he cannot—that this fight goes way beyond a single boxing match. Her words haunt Jackson during the fight, driving home the terrible truth of her words. And Matamoros gives an entertaining turn as the sharp, skeptical promoter Max; while he’s likeable enough through the gruff worldliness, you know Max isn’t entirely on the up and up.

The Royale shows us how one human being’s solitary sacrifice and actions can ripple out, becoming a tidal wave of universal response—and, win or lose, ambition and change both come at a price.

The Royale continues at the Young Centre until November 11. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out the production teaser:

 

Love, family & home in the heartwarming, hilarious Bed & Breakfast

Paolo Santalucia & Gregory Prest. Set design by Alexandra Lord. Costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Bonnie Beecher. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper takes us on a heartwarming, hilarious gay pioneering adventure of love, family, community and belonging with its deftly staged production of Mark Crawford’s Bed and Breakfast. Featuring a cast of nearly two dozen characters, performed by two exceptional actors, this poignant comedy directed by Ann-Marie Kerr is running now at the Young Centre.

City boys Brett (Gregory Prest) and Drew (Paolo Santalucia) long to get out of their Toronto condo and into a house they can call home; but despite the best efforts of their flamboyant real estate agent friend Ray (Prest), they continually find themselves on the losing end of cut-throat bidding wars. All that changes when they attend Brett’s aunt Maggie’s funeral and learn that she’s left her large small-town Victorian house to him. Brett, who works as an interior designer, and Drew, who works as a hotel concierge, decide to join forces professionally, go for a total lifestyle makeover and hatch a plan to move in, renovate and open a hip, contemporary B&B.

Easier said than done, as Brett and Drew are two gay fish out of water in a conservative small town. On the plus side, Brett has some knowledge of the town and people from his youth, having stayed with Maggie during the summer, and working with local contractor Doug (Santalucia). It doesn’t take long to find who their supporters are, but opponents are more cowardly and closeted. And, despite all efforts to engage with the community as they pitch in to help with the Santa Claus parade, there’s a cruel streak afoot in the town and the initial hostility they face escalates into something more disturbing. Soldiering on with the support of new friends and their commitment to the project, Brett and Drew persevere.

Chaos and hilarity ensue during the B&B’s opening weekend, when the guys host a Brit couple (Prest & Santalucia), a right-wing activist (Prest) and a pair of newlyweds (Santalucia)—plus deal with assorted emergencies and adopt a rambunctious puppy. They stumble through with a little help from their newfound friends—delightfully hippy dippy café owner Alison (Prest) and her Irish motorcycle-driving partner Chris (Santalucia), bubbly local real estate agent Carrie (Santalucia) and emo teen son Dustin (Prest), and even the tough, homophobic Doug and Brett’s sullen teen nephew Cody (Santalucia). But when Carrie informs them that she has a buyer willing to pay an obscene amount of money for the B&B, Brett and Drew have a tough decision to make—one that gets more complicated as family confessions and revelations emerge.

Outstanding, marathon performances from real-life couple Prest and Santalucia; creating a complementary pair of opposites with Prest’s more private, soft-spoken, circumspect Brett and Santalucia’s out, proud and extroverted Drew. And all this in addition to the sharply drawn, compelling, physically demanding performances as they each turn on a dime to deliver a cast of multiple characters in this tightly staged production. The design supports the story and staging both aesthetically and practically: Alexandra Lord’s multi-purpose airy set features Victorian architecture highlights; Ken MacKenzie’s spot-on, minimalist costume design; Bonnie Beecher’s magical, atmospheric lighting design; and sound design that features music by gay favourites, courtesy of John Gzowski.

The insightful, witty storytelling in Bed and Breakfast goes beyond the differences between gay and straight, and urban and small-town folks. It reminds us of the universal longing for a place where you belong, with people who accept you for who you are. Home is where your loved ones are; and the families we choose are just as potent—if not more so—as the ones we grew up with.

Due to popular demand during the first week of the run, Bed & Breakfast has been extended to September 8. Get advance tickets online or call the Young Centre box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Culture, identity & the meaning of the blues in Soulpepper’s powerful, entertaining Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Top: Alex Poch-Goldin. Bottom: Marcel Stewart, Diego Matamoros, Beau Dixon, Neville Edwards & Alana Bridgewater. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper takes us to 1920s Chicago, where the race, power and creative exploitation collide in a lively, tension-filled recording studio session in August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. This is the first time Ma Rainey has been performed in Canada since 1985, shortly after its 1984 premiere on Broadway.

A faint haze hangs over the dark, empty Chicago recording studio, conjuring visions of musicians and singers smoking between—or even during—takes (set and lighting design by Ken MacKenzie). Gradually, the space is peopled with the steady, quiet pace of familiar routine. Cranky, gravel-voiced studio owner Sturdyvant (Diego Matamoros) and Ma’s put-upon, ingratiating manager Irvin (Alex Poch-Goldin) get set up in the booth and on the floor. Then the boys in the band arrive: the bookish, philosophical piano man Toledo (Beau Dixon); the quiet, no-nonsense bassist Slow Drag (Neville Edwards); and fastidious, practical band leader/banjo player/trombonist Cutler (Lindsay Owen Pierre). Last to arrive is the energetic, stylish Levee (Lovell Adams-Gray), the new whiz kid on the trumpet, arriving late and showing off a new pair of shoes. The band hangs out in the rehearsal room downstairs (downstage), shooting the breeze and rehearsing a bit while they wait for Ma to arrive. The tension is already cooking, as Ma is running late, the play list is ever-changing, and the ambitious new kid—who has his sights set on starting his own band and recording his own music—doesn’t seem to think he needs to rehearse.

When the big energy, take-charge Mother of the Blues Ma (Alana Bridgewater) finally arrives an hour late, resplendent in a green dress (costumes by Alexandra Lord) with her young flapper girlfriend Dussie Mae (Virgilia Griffith) and sharp-dressed nephew Sylvester (Marcel Stewart) in tow, there’s more arguing and scrambling. An irritated policeman (Derek Boyes) has followed them into the studio, charging Sylvester with reckless driving and Ma with assault; Irvin quickly “handles” the situation, then finds himself under orders to arrange for repairs to Ma’s car. And then there’s the ongoing debate over which version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” they’re going to record: the original or Levee’s version. And Ma wants Sylvester, who stutters, to do the spoken intro on the recording; a decision that’s greeted with thinly veiled annoyed cynicism. Irvin continues bouncing like a ping pong ball between Sturdyvant, Ma and the band, playing peacekeeper, and taking care of all the concerns and issues. Young Levee has eyes for Dussie Mae; Cutler is trying to keep the band on track, especially Levee; and Slow Drag just wants to get it over with and go home. Toledo has his books to keep him company, while Sylvester and Dussie Mae are thrilled to be there—and Dussie Mae has taken notice of Levee’s attention.

Conversations among the band range from the comic to the tragic, from day-to-day shenanigans, to stories of personal struggle and the lived experience of being Black in America. And though she comes off as a diva, Ma is a shrewd businesswoman; she knows what she does and does not have control over. Where she can have a say, you can bet she’ll have it! Commanding respect with her seemingly unreasonable demands, Ma navigates a world where artists—particularly artists of colour—are used up for their creative talents then cast aside; in the meantime, they’re paid a fraction of what they’re worth while white producers, managers and studio owners profit handsomely from their work. And, for Ma and the band, the blues are more than just a money-making music genre—it’s “life’s way of talking.”

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Virgilia Griffith & Lovell Adams-Gray. Set & lighting design by Ken MacKenzie. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Outstanding, compelling work from this tight, multi-talented ensemble. Bridgewater shines as the unstoppable, talented Ma—a force to be reckoned with. A large woman with a larger than life personality, Ma is an exacting professional; a fierce mamma bear when it comes to protecting loved ones; and a tender, generous lover. Like most women in her situation, a respected and highly popular artist like Ma has a reputation for being “difficult”—a charge that would never be levelled at a white male artist in her shoes.

Adams-Gray does an amazing job peeling back the layers of Levee. From a traumatized child to a volatile young man, Levee is confident in his talent and eager to make a name for himself as a composer and band leader—but, unlike his more seasoned bandmates, has yet to learn how the game is played. Stewart is a delight as the shy, child-like Sylvester; wide-eyed, and filled with wonder and joy to be in the studio. With Ma’s support and encouragement, and bolstered by his plan to send money home to his mother, we see Sylvester’s self-confidence blossom as he works hard through his speech impediment to do the best he can on the recording.

Though set in the 20s, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom speaks to the situation of artists today. While artists have gained more control over their work and working conditions, the industry still has work to do with regard to cultural and creative exploitation, and assigning labels of “difficult” on women and artists of colour. And we only have to look at Ma and Levee to see that artists must learn to play the game and be at peace over that which they cannot control—or be swept up in the undertow of their own frustrated ambition and expectations.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom continues in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre—now extended by popular demand to June 9. Get advance tickets online or give the box office a shout at: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.