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.

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To breed or not to breed? Choices, identity & divisions in reflective, funny Rattled

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Nessya Dayan & Ximena Huizi – photo by Claire Holland

Brouillon Productions examines the spectrum of women’s choices and attitudes towards motherhood in Claire Holland’s Rattled, directed by Holland and currently running at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace.

BFFs Lena (Ximena Huizi) and Paige (Nessya Dayan) can count on each other for everything, calling or texting each other every day with updates, advice, rants. That all changes when Lena has a baby, and she becomes too busy, too tired and too mommy brained to maintain frequent, focused contact. And when they attend Lena’s post-delivery baby shower at Lena’s aunt Donna’s (Stacey Iseman), it becomes apparent that the two friends now belong to two different groups: the breeders and the non-breeders. The breeders are Grace (Carina Cojeen), Julia (Kaya Bucholc) and Aundrea (Fleur Jacobs), and the non-breeders include Lena’s colleague Michelle (Regan Brown) and Donna, who takes more neutral territory as host and referee. During the food, drinks and games, the range of attitudes and desires regarding motherhood emerges. It’s a big life change for Lena, with a huge impact on her friendships; and on top of all this, Paige needs to decide if she’s going to stay in Toronto or move to Vancouver with her boyfriend as he starts a new job.

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L to R: Regan Brown, Nessya Dayan, Stacey Iseman, Ximena Huizi, Kaya Bucholc, Carina Cojeen & Fleur Jacobs – photo by Claire Holland

The cast does a lovely job, with all the funny, touching and wit’s end insanity of caring for a tiny human – or not – arguing about strollers on transit and toddler meltdowns in restaurants. Huizi does a really nice job with Lena’s conflicting desire to be a mom and a friend; missing her little James even during the few hours of the shower, she struggles to recall details of conversation with Paige and finds herself distracted by the mommy talk in the room. Dayan brings a nice balance to Paige’s devotion to Lena and the growing frustration that their friendship will never be the same; a non-breeder by choice, now that Lena’s attentions are more focused on her baby, Paige needs to decide where to refocus her own life. Iseman brings a lovely sense of calm and quiet to Lena’s aunt Donna; with a history of cancer deciding her non-breeder status, she is gently pragmatic and pensive, and grateful for her life even though it took an unexpected turn. Brown is both cheerful and heartbreaking as Michelle, who longs to be a mother, but finds life’s busyness has kept her from finding a partner with which to create and share her dream. Lovely work in the two-handed scene with Iseman, where Michelle and Donna respectfully and poignantly share perspectives on identity and the disappointment of watching hopes drift away.

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Regan Brown & Stacey Iseman – photo by Claire Holland

Representing the mommy spectrum are Cojeen’s amiable and practical Grace, a mom of twins who’s happy to be out with the grown-up girls; on the more traditional side of parenting as far as boundaries go, she cares about her kids’ impact on others. Jacobs’ Aundrea is Grace’s hilarious polar opposite; bursting into the party, wondering where the booze is and over the moon that she has time away from the rug rats. She believes in free-range kids, and people just have to deal with it if they’re being their wild, kid-like selves in public. Bucholc’s Julia is a picture of fastidious efficiency and kid programming; doting mother to her Henry, she’s an encyclopedia of the best pre-school classes and knows where all the stroller accessible spaces are within a 10-km radius.

The social and peer – and self-imposed – pressure to be a woman in a certain way is alive and well in the 21st century, with motherhood being a significant piece of that equation. Perhaps if we were a bit gentler on ourselves, we could be a little less judgemental of the choices other women make.

The pre-show lobby video monitor and program include some fabulous quotes on motherhood from various notable women. My favourite is from Gloria Steinem: “I’m completely happy not having children. I mean, everybody does not have to live in the same way. And as somebody said, ‘Everybody with a womb doesn’t have to have a child any more than everybody with vocal cords has to be an opera singer.’”

To breed or not to breed? Choices, identity and divisions – funny ‘cuz it’s true in poignant, reflective Rattled.

Rattled continues till July 23 in the Tarragon Extraspace, running every night at 8 p.m. with an additional performance on July 23 at 2:30 p.m. It’s a very short run, so get yourself out there to avoid disappointment.