Michelle Monteith, Stuart Hughes and Jakob Ehman. Set, video and lighting design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Photo by Cylla von Tiedeman.
Soulpepper Theatre takes us on a turbulent, soul-wrenching homecoming journey in its production of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Idomeneus, translated by David Tushingham, and directed by Alan Dilworth with assistance from Gregory Prest. Idomeneus is currently running in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre in Toronto’s Distillery District.
The 10-year long Trojan War is over and Idomeneus, King of Crete (Stuart Hughes), is on his way home with his fleet of 80 ships; exhausted, battle-bruised and too long separated from loved ones. So close and so far, they are beset by a terrible storm that takes each ship down one by one. Aboard the last ship afloat, and facing certain death, Idomeneus strikes a bargain with Poseidon: he will sacrifice the first living thing he sees upon his arrival home. He is spared and returns home to the shores of Crete, his ship in tatters.
This is where our journey begins: in a shadow land of conscience, fate and storytelling, of lost souls and conflicting accounts. Which version of the story is true—and which is the version one can live with? Is the first living thing Idomeneus encounters his son Idamantes (Jakob Ehman)? Does he go through with the promised sacrifice? Has his wife Meda (Michelle Monteith) been unfaithful, sharing a lusty bed with an enraged fellow sovereign (Diego Matamoros) bent on punishing betrayal with revenge sex? Version upon version of the stories unfold. What is truth? What is rumour? What is fake news?
Combining storytelling, movement and choral work to create a collage of scenes and variations on scenes, the dark and eerie edge of this tale is highlighted with startling sound (Debashis Sinha) and lighting design, and haunting projected shadow images (Lorenzo Savoini), relieved by moments of dark comedy. The contemporary costuming (Gillian Gallow) is both muted and ghost-like; and the set, with its cracked stone wall and dark earth floor evokes both an ancient place and no place (Lorenzo Savoini).
Beautiful, haunting and compelling work from the ensemble in this unsettling and poetic drama: Akosua Amo-Adem, Alana Bridgewater, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Laura Condlln, Frank Cox-O’Connell, Jakob Ehman, Kyra Harper, Stuart Hughes, Diego Matamoros and Michelle Monteith.
And, whether Idomeneus goes through with the sacrifice of his son or not, will it have the same outcome? And will he have to pay with his own life regardless of which path he chooses?
Idomeneus continues in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 / 1-888-898-1188.
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.
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.
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 fierce, lyrical narrative shifts from invoking the mythological in “Pythia, Priestess of Apollo” and the erotic in “Remember the Night…” and “Approach” to the reminiscence of letters to an absent lover in “Letter in Saffron” and the cerebral wordplay of “Intimacy.”
Incorporating ruminations on, and hallucinations of, time and space, Tidal Fury is also an examination of identity, including the masking of identity, featuring a compelling personification of jealousy in the form of the old woman and her relationship with the sea as she keeps a vice-like grip on the tide line. The ebb and flow of time, passion and the sea – as the waves undulate, so to do the bodies.
Words of passion and fury in Brenda Clews’ erotic, mythological Tidal Fury.
Brenda Clews’ Tidal Fury launch will be featured in Guernica’s upcoming December Delights Book Launch event on December 4 at 3:30 p.m. at Supermarket. Other featured works include Max’s Folly by Bill Turpin, The Examined Life by Luciano Iacobelli, Canticles I: mmxvi by George Elliott Clarke, Maniac Drifter by Laura Marello, Mankind & Other Stories of Women by Marianne Ackerman, Clarke Blaise: Essays on His Works & Clarke Blaise: The Interviews ed. J.R. (Tim) Struthers.
In the meantime, check out the trailer for Tidal Fury:
In celebration of the 10th anniversary of BloodClaat: The Sankofa Trilogy Part 1, The Watah Theatre is remounting d’bi.young anitafrika’s award-winning Sankofa Trilogy, starting with a run of BloodClaat to open its 2016-17 Blk Bx Season [calendar link] at its home in Toronto’s Distillery District at 9 Trinity Street, Studio 317.
The Sankofa Trilogy takes us on the journey of three generations of remarkable Jamaican womxn,* starting with Mudgu Sankofa in BloodClaat, collectively directed, with the guidance and support of spiritual mentor Raven Dauda. A solo show inspired by anitafrika’s lived experience as an incest survivor, BloodClaat is part autobiography, part mythology as we follow 15-year-old Mudgu’s coming of age.
Mudgu lives with her grandmother while her mother prepares a new life for them in Canada. An active, precocious young woman who talks a mile a minute, she excels at net ball and adores her boyfriend Johnny. Navigating her grandmother’s strict house rules, her school and personal life, and a rough neighbourhood known for violence, she is also coming to terms with being a woman – and that means dealing with her monthly menstrual cycle and the power to create life (which her grandmother forbids her to do). Her world changes forever when she goes to live with her aunt and uncle for a while, and an act of violence in her grandmother’s neighbourhood ends in death.
Woven into Mudgu’s story are mythological tales and parables of strength and ritual; in particular, one of a warrior princess who gives a rallying cry to her people to rise up for freedom from their white plantation masters.
The theme of blood is the common thread: a womxn’s monthly blood, with the power of giving life and even healing; blood that’s shed in violence and in sacrifice; and the blood of goddess and ritual. And we see different perspectives and points of view on menstrual blood: shame, derision, celebration, creation and powerful magical properties.
Anitafrika is a profoundly compelling and engaging storyteller; and the staging in The Watah Theatre’s studio space makes for an extremely intimate, immersive experience. Throughout the story, the audience becomes Mudgu’s neighbours, her fellow bus passengers and the warrior princess’s people.
Told with humour, candor and emotional punch – incorporating voice, movement and posture, with very little in the way of costume changes – BloodClaat features sharply defined characters, exquisitely drawn by anitafrika. From the delightfully energetic and innocent Mudgu, to her sharp-tonged, strict grandmother and kind, gentle mother; her smooth talking boyfriend with swagger Johnny; her distracted, pious church lady aunt and deep-voiced, possessive uncle; the stuttering bus driver; and the fierce and inspiring warrior princess. We are rapt as we find ourselves alternating between being a fly on the wall and part of Mudgu’s story.
As is anitafrika’s custom, each performance is followed by a moment to catch your breath, and an opportunity to share comments and ask questions. When asked about BloodClaat and The Sankofa Trilogy, anitafrika described the generational through line and how she wanted to remount the work in a more intimate setting. As The Watah’s 2016-17 season experiments with a black box theatre experience, what happens when there is minimal production in a room filled with energy? Is it possible to move through a (r)evolution without resources? Confronted with limited funding and support, the stories still need to be told. Story moves us to change regardless. The houses have been small, but the impact has been huge; up close and personal, something magical happens in that space. And perhaps it is only in such an intimate space that storytelling medicine and healing – and profound, surprising growth – can happen.
An interesting divergence from the original production, noted by one audience member in her comment, was that there’s now a scene of Mudgu washing herself, her bed sheets and nightie. Bypassed for 10 years, anitafrika realized she’d been avoiding this reality of the story. Mudgu wakes up with menstrual leakage and needs to clean up. Of course she does! And in these moments, Mudgu must hold herself – and it’s become one of anitafrika’s favourite scenes.
Asked a more general question about what she says “No” to, anitafrika is mindful of corporate sponsorship. It’s important to know where your funding is coming from and who you’re potentially partnering with. Despite its seeming naiveté, anitafrika believes there must be a way to live your ethics and values – and that may mean revising your definition of success. It’s not about becoming rich and famous; it’s about living with purpose in service of your community. And while it’s not a new idea, “meaning leads to joy.”
With shouts to the creative team for their beautiful work on this production: Rachel Forbes (set and costumes), Andrenne Finnikin (ass’t set design) and Brett Haynes (lighting/producer).
Sacred, profane and magical. Blood variations and intimate, powerful storytelling in BloodClaat: The Sankofa Trilogy Part 1.
BloodClaat continues at The Watah Theatre’s space (9 Trinity Street, Studio 317) till Nov 20; it’s an intimate space and a truly compelling show, and you can get your tix in advance. Please note the 7:00 p.m. start time for evening performances.
The Sankofa Trilogy continues with Parts 2 and 3, with stories of Mudgu’s daughter Sekesu and granddaughter Benu in Benu (Feb 15-Mar 5, 2017) and Word! Sound! Powah! (April 5-28, 2017); this in addition to other productions scheduled for the 2016-17 season. All shows will be performed at The Watah Theatre’s home.
Emerging playwright Jijo Quayson and director Brad Fraser premiere Quayson’s first play Osia, running in the Factory Theatre Mainspace for SummerWorks, with Fraser’s direction assisted by Spencer Schunk, and dramaturgical support from Djanet Sears, Fraser and Andrea Donaldson.
Set in present-day Ghana, Harmosia (Nicole Nwokolo) and her Mama (Chemika Bennett-Heath) eagerly anticipate the return of Mama’s brother Uncle (Paul Ohonsi), who has moved to America and promised to take them to live with him there. As Harmosia delights in life at school and stories of a magical princess who lives by the river, she dreams of being a princess herself, convinced that her father was a king. Mama dreams of a better life in America, leaving her housekeeping job behind to study to become a nurse. Uncle has big plans, and has enlisted Kwefi (Roshawn Balgrove), a family friend who runs the local shop, to help him make some big money. Meanwhile, Mama’s friend and neighbour Bernice (Chiamaka G. Ugwu) has her sights set on the newly returned Uncle. Beneath all the dreaming and planning, harsh realities are revealed.
Really nice work from the cast with the storytelling. Nwokolo is both delightful and poignant as the little girl Harmosia; fiercely active, with a vast and wonderful imagination, she is a true innocent – all that will change with experience. Bennett-Heath brings a lovely sense of conflict to Mama; longing for something better for herself and her daughter, she is dependent on her brother, both financially and emotionally; and she can’t help but wonder what he’s up to. Ohonsi is charming and generous as the fast-talking Uncle; his jovial manner concealing a nastier purpose. Taking care of business in both his new and former home; his big schemes are risky – legally and personally. Balgrove’s Kwefi is a genuine bright light of welcome and friendship; but even Kwefi’s sense of loyalty can be pushed too far when he sees what Uncle’s about. Ugwu is hilarious as the bubbly neighbourhood gossip Bernice; a devout Christian who leads the community bible studies, her hypocrisy shows as she lusts after Uncle.
Family secrets emerge and dreams become threatened in a story that – rightfully noted by Quayson in the program – could happen anywhere.
A young Ghanaian girl’s magical world of stories and dreams of life in America in charming, moving Osia.
Osia continues at the Factory Theatre Mainspace until Aug 14. Follow the production on Facebook.
In this version of Persephone’s journey to the Underworld, we are shown several sides of the story – and everyone seems to have a different version. Love-struck Hades (Christopher Sawchyn) makes a request to Zeus (Felix Beauchamp) to arrange a marriage with his daughter Persephone (Sydney Herauf), but clearly no one checked in with her mother Demeter (Jacklyn Francis). Beside herself with worry as she searches for her beloved daughter, Demeter casts the world into winter in protest in an attempt to force Zeus’s hand and get Persephone back. In the end, though, it is Persephone who decides and enacts the terms of her release.
Using movement and dance that is both playful and erotic, as well as music and song – and with a delightful comedic introduction to the tale – the ensemble does a remarkable job with the storytelling. Herauf gives us a fulsome, well-rounded performance as Persephone; going from precocious, curious child to a strong-willed teen who questions authority, to a young woman discovering her own desires and choices as she navigates the decisions that were made for her. Sawchyn is imperious and seductive as Hades; and despite his commanding personality, he’s far more sensitive and accommodating than one would think. A lonely god, he seems to really want to get to know Persephone and cares about her welfare and happiness. This in contrast to Beauchamp’s cocky Zeus, who is decidedly more old-school patriarchy; with a laissez-faire attitude toward fatherhood, his power is absolute – but despite his arrogance, he’s not stupid and knows he must make a compromise with Demeter or the people will perish in the harsh conditions of her imposed winter. Francis is lovely, majestic and nurturing as Demeter (aka Mother Nature); in today’s terms, her parenting style would be called “helicopter,” and her fear for her daughter’s safety, while well-founded, is overly controlling at times. Afraid to let her daughter go and ferocious in her pursuit to get her back – you don’t wanna mess with Mother Nature.
Really nice work from the members of the chorus, who portray multiple characters, including trees and a river. Laura Katherine Hayes give a great turn as Persephone’s irreverent, playful friend and lover Diana; and Augusto Bitter and Fiona Haque do a lovely re-enactment of the Orpheus and Eurydice tale. Keshia Palm injects some fabulous sass; and Sheree Spencer brings mystery and some beautiful violin music.
With shouts to the design team: Sim Suzer (costume) and Kennedy Brooks (lighting) for their evocative work on this production.
Take a trip into the Underworld with the beautifully theatrical, sensuous and thought-provoking Persephone.
“There is one thing we know attracts Trickster: fear.”
Better late than never; I was originally scheduled to see Native Earth Performing Arts’ production of Cliff Cardinal’s Huffa week ago, but got grounded by a nasty cold – so I was very happy to have a chance to see it last night. Directed by Karin Randoja and currently running at Aki Studio, Huff is an incredibly strong opener for Native Earth’s 2015-16 season.
Last night’s performance featured a pre-show chat with the design team: Jackie Chau (set and costume), Michelle Ramsay (lighting) and Alex Williams (sound). Moderated by Native Earth’s Managing Director Isaac Thomas, the group talked about their early influences and what drew them to theatre production; and how a history of working together brings an organic rhythm and shorthand in communication, as well as a sense of trust (and the camaraderie was evident in the exchange between them). The design elements are integrated in such a way that if one were missing, there would be a hole in the production – light, sound and space equally important in telling this story.
When asked about the personal importance of telling the story of Huff, Chau highlighted the universal and resonant themes of loss, pain and forgiveness; Ramsay pointed out that it’s important to tell stories that don’t often get told/heard, and how Huff goes beyond what you might see in a news headline to the emotional core of the experience. Williams, a First Nations ally who keeps in touch with FN issues and supports FN productions, has a great deal of respect for this work – and pointed out the interconnectedness of the creative, intellectual and emotional in Huff, even through the play’s theme of disconnection.
Once the stage has cleared in preparation for the performance to begin, you take it in. Four flats, with a flickering projection of a Vacant sign on the one down stage right; centre stage, on the floor, a painted circle like the moon, transected with branch-like appendages. And within the space, a case of beer, an overturned chair, a lone beer bottle, an ottoman. Simple, but evocative – and made to stand alone, as well as to travel well for the production’s tour dates.
Three young brothers struggle with neglect, abuse and addiction after the death of their mother, spending more time at an abandoned motel than they do at home or school. Told from the point of view of the middle brother, Wind – performed by Cree playwright/actor Cardinal – Huff is a one-man show with a cast of many characters that incorporates Indigenous mythology, storytelling and first-person narrative. The opening scene is by turns darkly funny, heart-pounding and raw – leaving no room for doubt that this is some serious shit. Cardinal turns it from harrowing to hilarious with puckish mischief and charm, a dynamic that continues throughout the telling of this tale.
Cardinal’s performance is razor sharp and direct, but also engaging and irreverently funny – and he regularly breaks the fourth wall to yank us into the story, making the audience part of Wind’s world. This dynamic adds to the tension of the piece – and forces us to recognize that, as witnesses, we are culpable in our passivity and in our actions. The effect is both fascinating and disconcerting. [Those of you who’ve read cowbell before know that I don’t like spoilers, so you’ll be getting none here. You’ll just have to go see for yourselves.] And ever present, watchful and full of shenanigans is Trickster.
Adeptly spinning out scenes and moments from Wind’s troubled, hallucination-filled fantasy world, Cardinal fluidly weaves in and out of each character. Protective of his younger brother (a wide-eyed, adorable and magical child), but caught in the middle between him and their cruel, abusive older brother, and their largely absent, frustrated father, Wind vacillates between disconnection and revelation – trying to keep the darkness at bay with beer, gas sniffing and dangerous games, but ultimately undone by the growing awareness that he can’t get away. The appearance of the boys’ hapless, put-upon step-mother; their straight-talking, pragmatic grandmother; their uptight, ineffectual and punitive schoolteacher; goofy, elf-like friend; and the icy cool and cocky local radio DJ inject comic relief to the tale, as well as insights on the harsh realities of everyday life on the reservation. Ultimately, Wind’s journey leads him to the darkest place in order for him to see the light.
So next time you see a high or drunk native person, or read about a native kid who died huffing gasoline, don’t be so quick to judge – and stop to think about what horrors brought them to that place.
Huff is a compelling piece of storytelling, unflinching in its harsh reality, charming in its magic, deeply poignant and funny.