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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Relevant, urgent, hopeful—the powerful, resonant evolution of Bleeders in Lukumi

There is a buzz of excitement and anticipation, a festive feeling. Those of us among the audience who arrived early had been listening in on a final rehearsal, taking in the lush harmonies and powerful lyrics as we waited in the hallway. And when we enter the space, we are welcomed, offered something to drink. It’s like we’re coming into someone’s home—and we are.

We are in Studio 317 at 9 Trinity Street in the Distillery District, home to The Watah Theatre. And we are about to witness the evolution of Part Three of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Orisha Trilogy: Lukumi, a dub opera that began as Bleeders in a workshop production at the Theatre Centre during SummerWorks 2016. The revised, retitled piece has been mounted for three staged readings—and last night was opening night.

Led by playwright/director anitafrika and musical director Waleed Abdulhamid, the Lukumi ensemble is a combination of the original SummerWorks Bleeders cast and Watah Theatre 2016/17 Artists-in-Residence: Saba Akhtar, Angaer Arop, Anne-Audrey, Naomi Bain, Aisha Bentham, Savannah Clark, Raven Dauda, Andrenne Finnikin, Nickeshia Garrick, Mahlet Gebreyohannes, FaithAnn Mendes, muyoti mukonambi, Najla Nubyanluv, Sashoya Shoya Oya, Kamika Peters, Radha Pithadia, Racquel Smith, Alexandra Sproule and Ravyn Wngs.

I saw the 2016 SummerWorks production, back when it was called Bleeders. Anitafrika refers to the piece as an “experiment” that combines dub opera and African traditions of choral work. Emerging actors were paired up with more experienced actors, creating a mentorship bond, and the cast was given space to experiment with characterizations; for the reading workshop, each character is presented in duet, a miniature chorus of two actors. The script was reworked for the reading event, to fill in gaps that would otherwise be covered by staging/action, with anitafrika acting as both narrator and conductor.

Most of the original script is still there: Lukumi is a hero’s journey in a futuristic post-apocalyptic dystopia following a nuclear disaster at the Pickering nuclear plant—an event that has left mankind sterile, but for a special one, the Lukumi. Sent off by a council of black womxn* to seek the Ancestor Tree in the hopes of finding what humans have forgotten about their role in creation, Lukumi embarks on a warrior’s vision quest into the underworld.

Guided by the teachings and principles of eight animal guides, she finds what she is looking for and returns home—but perhaps too late. The One World Army, seeking fertile women to swell their ranks to continue the 1,000-years War, is banging on the door. The situation is dire and many of her friends sacrifice their lives—but, having learned humility and accepting responsibility for mankind’s destruction of the planet, Lukumi has within her the seed of hope.

The most remarkable revision is the prologue, with the addition of an all too familiar voiceover—the “America first” portion of Donald Trump’s inauguration speech—which puts forth an “us first,” isolationist philosophy. It is a chilling foundation for what is to come, seguing into a scene of protest over the rape of the land and the poisoning of the water—and, in particular, the unsafe proximity of nuclear power plants to residential areas. The performance features stand-out vocal solos from Nubyanluv (Ancestor Tree) and Garrick (Elephant); once again, Garrick’s “Rest in Peace, My Friends” brought tears to my eyes—as did the epilogue “Black Lives Matter,” where the entire cast brings us back to 2016 in a stark reminder of ongoing social inequality and the oppressive abuse of power (which animal guide Lion warned Lukumi against).

During the post-reading talkback, as the cast introduced themselves, a common thread for their experience of this work—and working with Watah Theatre—emerged: they felt they were held in a space of mutual respect, and in the spirit of creative experimentation and collaboration. The Artists-in-Residence have been working in relative solitude, each crafting a solo piece, and those who have spent a most of their emerging careers working alone marvelled at the collective experience. There is a deep sense of gratitude, family and ownership in this oasis of creativity and support.

Anitafrika and The Watah Theatre foster a sense of community and outreach, emphasizing the desire to be present, and show up both in life and in the work they undertake. It is an inclusive, embracing space, where artists are invited to come as they are, and learn and stretch. It is a community of creativity, sharing and mentorship that creates artists who are also leaders and activists. Please consider supporting The Watah Theatre by contributing to their GoFundMe campaign.

With shouts to Stage Manager Samson Brown and Artistic Producer Brett Haynes—it does, after all, take a village to mount such an epic work.

Relevant, urgent, hopeful—the powerful, resonant evolution of Bleeders in Lukumi. I look forward to seeing where this production goes next.

The Lukumi workshop reading has two more performances at The Watah Theatre’s space (9 Trinity Street, Studio 317): today (Saturday) at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm; it’s an intimate space and a truly compelling show, so get your tix in advance. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Lukumi:

* This spelling of “woman” is the preference of the playwright.

SummerWorks: Post-nuclear disaster bravery, vision quest & hope in the powerful, moving, resonant Bleeders

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d’bi.young anitafrika and Watah Theatre wrap the Orisha Trilogy’s epic exploration of the Black diaspora, divinity and the environment with Bleeders, a dub opera running in the Theatre Centre Mainspace as part of SummerWorks.

Part One of the Trilogy, Esu Crossing the Middle Passage, speaks to the past; Part Two, She Mami Wata and the Pussy WitchHunt is set in the present; and Bleeders takes us into the future. Directed by anitafrika, assisted by Nickeshia Garrick, Bleeders features choreography by Garrick, and composition by Waleed Abdulhamid (also the music director), assisted by tuku (also vocalist and vocal coach).

The Pickering nuclear power plant has exploded, destroying the environment, poisoning the water, rendering the population infertile and plunging the land into ongoing war. A group of Black womxn* survivors gathers to find a way to heal the land and its people. A lone bleeder (fertile) emerges to become their warrior, setting off on a vision quest in search of the Ancestor Tree. Meanwhile, an army draws closer, hell bent on finding bleeders in order to increase their numbers and continue the war.

The powerful, high-energy production features an equally outstanding ensemble: Olunike Adeliyi, d’bi.young anitafrika, Aisha Bentham, Raven Dauda, Nickeshia Garrick, Najla Nubyanluv, Sashoya Shoya Oya, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah and Ravyn Wngs. And the band – The 333, which performs with anitafrika on Aug 9 at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre – is Waleed Abdulhamid, Christopher Butcher, Odel Johnson and Patrick O’Reilly.

The devastating and hopeful storytelling is impactful, both visually (set/costumes by Rachel Forbes) and emotionally, told through song, mythology and the hero’s journey; and many of the ensemble take on the roles of the hero’s animal guides, moving with fluid precision. The effect is both magical and poignant. The lyrics and music resonate to the core, making you want to move and then weep; Garrick’s solo “Rest in Peace” and the “Black Lives Matter” finale are especially potent. Once again, I was left in tears.

In the end, we are reminded of what anitafrika described during the brief post-show talkback as “the intersectionality of oppression” – how all are affected when global greed endangers the climate and environment – and of our collective responsibility to do something about it.

Despite their best efforts at accessing funding through grants, the Watah Theatre is in dire financial straits and needs our help in order to survive. Please consider giving to their Go Fund Me campaign; and keep the vitally important company alive so it can continue providing artist training and support, and produce works that tell stories that need to be told.

Post-nuclear disaster bravery, vision quest and hope in the powerful, moving and resonant Bleeders.

Bleeders continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 14. And look for a life beyond SummerWorks – this is just the beginning.

*This is the playwright’s preferred spelling of “women.”