The battle for survival & inclusion in an elite Chinese sanctuary in the provocative, darkly funny Yellow Rabbit

En Lai Mah & April Leung, with Amanda Zhou in the background. Set & costume design by Jackie Chau. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Video design by Zeesy Powers. Photo by: Cesar Ghisilieri.

 

Soulpepper presents the world premiere of Silk Bath Collective’s (SBC) provocative, darkly funny, multimedia and trilingual Yellow Rabbit, written by Bessie Cheng, Aaron Jan and Gloria Mok, directed by Jasmine Chen and running at the Young Centre. Set in a post-nuclear apocalypse dystopia, with dialogue in English, Cantonese and Mandarin (with surtitles), contestants are tested and assessed in a life or death competition to gain entry into the Chinese sanctuary Rich-Man Hill. A beautiful oasis from a harsh and dangerous land, competition is fierce and standards are strict—and only those who are deemed worthy are allowed access.

Yellow Rabbit represents the evolution of SBC’s sold-out production of Silk Bath, which debuted at Toronto Fringe and went on to the Next Stage Festival—making history as the first trilingual play at the Fringe. While Silk Bath focused on external stereotyping and oppression of Chinese-Canadians, Yellow Rabbit dives deep into internalized racism and extremism. You have to be the ‘right’ kind of Chinese to get into Rich-Man Hill.

Woman (April Leung) and Man (En Lai Mah) are brought into the testing facility, paired as husband and wife by Rich-Man Hill authorities, as they’ve been identified as a good match to carry on the Chinese race in this post-apocalyptic world. Overseen by Mother (Amanda Zhou), assisted by Child (Bessie Cheng), Woman and Man must pass a series of tests and challenges designed to prove their excellence—and ultimate worth—as ideal Chinese citizens; and the assessment process is a life and death prospect.

Hounded and hunted in the outside world, Chinese survivors are willing to risk anything to get into Rich-Man Hill. Contestants are fitted with collars, which Mother and Child use to manipulate and discipline with painful shocks. In between challenges, contestants view propaganda videos (by Zeesy Powers) showing Mother and Child enjoying a loving, trusting relationship in a breath-taking, verdant landscape highlighted by a refreshing waterfall. The Woman and Man both have secrets they’re keeping from Mother, but share with each other in an attempt to connect and work together to get through the trials. Meanwhile, Mother and Child find they don’t agree on the standards Mother has set; the more narrow-minded, old-school Mother is much more stringent on who is deemed worthy, while Child is more progressive and desires more modern, forward-thinking parameters.

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Amanda Zhou & Bessie Cheng. Set & costume design by Jackie Chau. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Video design by Zeesy Powers. Photo by: Cesar Ghisilieri.

Great work from the ensemble, balancing the dark humour with the disturbing nature of the situation. Leung and Mah have great chemistry as Woman and Man; both are strong-willed and determined, but realize that they must try to get along and work together, as all the tests are applied to them as a pair. Both deeply troubled and conflicted, the secrets that Man and Woman harbour speak to the core of their identity; and it’s heart-breaking to watch them try to be something they’re not in order to pass the tests and survive. Zhou gives Mother an ethereal air of mystery—a combination spiritual and community leader spouting wisdom and guidance; but beneath Mother’s nurturing exterior is a harsh and unforgiving authoritarian. Cheng’s Child is an innocent, devoted follower and assistant to Mother; but even Child’s loyalty goes only so far—and, despite her more modern-day views, her model is still based on the totalitarian regime already running Rich-Man Hill.

Extreme standards and isolation breed fear and contempt for outsiders and those not deemed the ‘right’ type of Chinese. And with such strict rules for entry and fewer potential contestants at her disposal, Mother risks weakening the community she’s supposed to be protecting.

Yellow Rabbit continues for its final week at the Young Centre, closing on December 1. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Advance tickets are a must; if a performance appears to be sold out online, check again—as some tickets may be released close to or on the day of.

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A lesser known perspective of WWI in the compelling, eye-opening, thought-provoking Gods Like Us

Zazu Oke & Vince Deiulis. Set construction by Erica Causi. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Kelsi Dewhurst.

 

Theatre Nidãna challenges what we think we know about WWI as it commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice of the First World War, giving us a little known perspective with the world premiere of Gods Like Us. An allegory that incorporates a traditional Nigerian lullaby and storytelling, and original music (composed by Nathan Radke and played by Mark Whale), Gods Like Us was devised by Zazu Oke and Vince Deiulis, who both perform in this compelling, eye-opening and thought-provoking two-hander; opening last night in the Factory Theatre Studio.

It’s November 1917, and a Canadian Recruiter (Vince Deiulis) approaches a Nigerian yam Farmer (Zazu Oke) in hopes of convincing him to join the Allied forces in their campaign to push back the Germans’ advance in East Africa. Taking a sales pitch angle on the ask, the Recruiter offers money, promising the Farmer increased status and respect within the village—and the ultimate advanced status of being “like us” (white men).

However, the British army—and by extension the Recruiter—have erred on gauging their audience. Assuming they’d be addressing uneducated, simple-minded African villagers who know nothing of the outside world, the Recruiter is faced with an intelligent, socially aware man who has personal, direct knowledge of the actual “opportunity” he’s being offered. Black men are not taken on as soldiers, but as carriers; and being denied a weapon, how are they to defend themselves? And the enhanced status pitch is inaccurate at best and at worst a lie.

The Farmer tells the Recruiter the story of the Tortoise and the Birds; the Birds are tricked by the Tortoise’s sweet words into helping him, only to find themselves cheated out of their promised reward. Instead of being helpless victims of a swindle, the Birds plot and get their revenge on the Tortoise—forever marking him as a crooked creature. While the Recruiter is charmed by the tale, he clearly doesn’t get the connection to their current circumstance.

As the Recruiter struggles to control his soldier’s heart (PTSD) episodes, the Farmer grapples with his anger at the sheer nerve and hypocrisy of his request. A British protectorate, the colonization of Nigeria has come at great, and tragic, personal and economic cost to its people. The Farmer has lost his family; and the farm is hanging by a thread as he tries to scrape by, selling his produce at lower prices to the British compared to what he could earn from his former German customers. Why should the Farmer fight for those who’ve done nothing but take from him and his people? And when the tone of the debate shifts from a battle of wits to playful wager to enraged face-off, the Farmer finds himself facing a moral choice: Does he use the power at his disposal to take revenge or does he let it go?

Riveting performances from Deiulis and Oke in this intimate tale of war, colonialism and race relations; the two-hander dynamic serving as a microcosm of the larger picture. Deiulis leaves us some room for empathizing with the Recruiter, who is under orders and navigating PTSD; but our sympathy for him only goes so far. Avoiding a sleazy, snake oil salesman approach, the Recruiter uses more friendly, insidious means to get the “natives” to sign on. Toeing the company line in his promise of white, god-like status, the Recruiter is entirely clueless to the fact that he’s adding serious insult to mortal injury. Oke is both impressive and heartbreaking as the Farmer. In deep mourning for the loss of his family and struggling to keep the farm—and himself—alive, the Farmer is patient and hospitable with the Recruiter; but his civility is tested when the Recruiter keeps pushing the Allies’ agenda, bringing the Farmer’s painful history of oppression and loss to the surface, and forcing him to push back.

Lesser known stories like this one need to be told. One has to wonder, had there been any attempt at reconciliation and reparation—and approached as a connection of equals and true partners—maybe prospective Nigerian recruits would have had a real reason to risk their lives in this war. But this observation is, of course, made through a 2018 lens. And while we honour those who served, we must also acknowledge and appreciate those who were unable to serve, or whose service was minimized, or coaxed or coerced with bait and switch methods, due to the colour of their skin.

Gods Like Us continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until November 17; advance tickets available online, or by calling 416-504-9971 or visiting the box office (125 Bathurst Street, Adelaide Street Entrance).

In the meantime, check out Oke and Deiulis’s Stageworthy Podcast interview with host Phil Rickaby.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce & funny Sound of the Beast

Tamyka Bullen (onscreen) & Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Hear ye, hear ye

let it be known,

No one on my block walks alone.

 

Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) closes its 2016-17 season with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s (aka Belladonna the Blest) Sound of the Beast, co-directed by Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram, with ASL components by Tamyka Bullen, and featuring composition and sound design by David Mesiha. Sound of the Beast opened in the TPM Backspace last night.

Inspired by the story of Tunisian rapper Weld El 15, whose artistic freedom of speech was muzzled by police and government, and part of St. Bernard’s 54ology (her commitment to create a performance piece from each country in Africa), Sound of the Beast combines rap and spoken word with lived experiences for an up-close, profoundly personal and resonant performance. Complementing St. Bernard’s storytelling is a projected performance of Tamyka Bullen’s poetry, performed in ASL with English surtitles (projection design by Cameron Davis). And a series of radio voice-overs (Glyn Bowerman), updating us on news of an “incident” in a “priority neighbourhood,” provide a bleak commentary on the clueless, one-sided and white-washed view of mainstream media.

Autobiographical, observational and replete with first-hand lives lived in an environment of racism, mistrust and injustice, words and stories that we may only have read or seen on the news come to life. Urgent. Shocking. In front of us. What is the most shocking is that stories of oppression and injustice are not shocking, but part of our everyday lives.

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Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in Sound of the Beast—photo by Michael Cooper

A compelling and engaging storyteller, St. Bernard shifts easily from pointed remarks and calling out prejudice, to casual and conversational moments. She puts forth hypothetical scenarios and asks us how we would respond; making us active participants as we silently think about the choices in front of us. And during two poignant and charged scenes, she speaks to her imaginary young son; guiding him on how to behave, speak and even set his facial expressions in order to stay safe out there when confronted by the authorities. At times speaking to us as friends, she takes us in and along on her journey—her research on Weld El, her personal experiences—genuine, infuriating, heartbreaking, hilarious. Shifting from a stand-up storytelling vibe, to in our faces or in emcee performance mode, St. Bernard moves through the space with ease and fluidity, with professionalism and personality. Singing and speaking with strength, emotion and moving beats, her job is to tell it—and she brings it big time.

Speaking as a Deaf woman born into a “hearing Indian-Guyanese Hindu-Christian family”—and living in a “hearing, straight Eurocentric Christian patriarchal country,” Bullen’s poetry is beautiful, moving and revealing. Highlighting the intersectionality of experiences of oppression and prejudice among the Black and Deaf communities, she points to how heavy unemployment and underemployment leave marginalized people struggling to get by in a system that “operates for so long based on ignorance and hate.” Writing of poverty, PTSD, the immigrant experience and her relationship with the earth, Bullen reminds us of the ever present need for mindfulness, awareness and compassion—and how we are all we are all born of the same Mother Earth.

Coiled on the floor and ready, the microphone is St. Bernard’s weapon and bridge; and the black hoodie she dons at the opening of her performance and sheds at the close is her storytelling cloak. If you are not black or marginalized, you can only glean so much from what you see and hear in the news about these lived experiences. Of being constantly under surveillance because of the colour of your skin and the neighbourhood you live in. Of being questioned by law enforcement for no reason. Of being misunderstood and not knowing what you’re supposed to say. Of unarmed youth being shot by police. Sound of the Beast brings it in closer. Come and hear for yourself.

Speaking truth to power in raw, real, fierce and funny Sound of the Beast.

Sound of the Beast continues in the TPM Backspace until May 7; book tickets online or call 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended—it’s a powerful show and an intimate space.

Fathers & sons on a journey of growth & forgiveness in the entertaining, deeply moving Métis Mutt

Native Earth Performing Arts continues its 2016-17 season of compelling Indigenous theatre with Sheldon Elter’s Métis Mutt, directed by Ron Jenkins, at Native Earth’s home in the Aki Studio.

Métis Mutt began as an eight-minute piece at NextFest 2001, inspired by teacher Ken Brown and the vocal masque style of solo show. Since then, it’s grown into a 90-minute feature, was a hit at Edmonton Fringe, subsequently adapted for high school audiences, and has toured Canada and New Zealand. The Native Earth production marks the show’s Toronto premiere.

A semi-autobiographical piece of storytelling that combines stand-up, music, monologue and multiple character vignettes, Métis Mutt is part memoir, part spirit journey. Searching for his authentic voice, a young Métis (have Indigenous, half white) man struggles with centuries-old cultural stereotypes and internalized racism as he finds his way out of a cycle of violence and self-destruction to healing and forgiveness.

Heartbreaking flashbacks to the young man’s childhood reveal a sweet boy torn between protecting his mother and younger brother, and running and hiding from his father’s drunken outbursts. A favourite of his father and thus escaping the beatings, he beats himself up for his failure to act and for being a coward. Later on, having moved away with his mother and brother, his conflicting feelings emerge in letters to his dad—love and fear, longing and confusion.

As a young man, he discovers a talent for stand-up and music, and finds chosen family on the road with his hypnotist performer friend Mark, and is later drawn to theatre school. And when years-old buried emotions erupt to the surface, he self-medicates with drugs and alcohol, and cuts himself, to numb the pain.

His thoughts turn often to his father, a troubled man who struggled with demons of his own only to find them emerging from the bottom of a bottle to turn on his family. And the death of his father becomes a turning point. Not wanting to go down that same road, the young man finds his way back to himself, finding self-awareness in his struggle for identity and self-acceptance, and forgiveness for his father.

An engaging and versatile performer, Elter deftly shifts from comedy to tragedy throughout—a hilarious and stark reminder that pain comes from laughter and laughter comes from pain. Setting the tone off the top of the show with a set of stand-up, what starts off as a good-natured, self-deprecating series of stereotypical riffs on “Indians” becomes a biting commentary on hundreds of years of oppression and racism as joking around turns to rage, and entertainment becomes condemnation. The pain is turned inside out so others can see and understand. The title Métis Mutt is both a source of laughter and pain, poking fun at identity even as it grieves the damage of racist name-calling.

From cheeky stand-up and bawdy music bits, to poignant characterizations and startling scenes of violence, Elter’s storytelling is genuine, thought-provoking and frank—finding the light and the dark spots, and ultimately unearthing hope and redemption.

With shouts to the design team: Tessa Stamp (set and lights; she’s also the production’s stage manager), T. Erin Gruber (projection) and Aaron Macri (sound). Design elements are particularly effective during the young man’s mystic healing experience, when he’s taken to a native healer after traditional medicine doesn’t help him. The semi-circle of stones that delineates the playing space, and the semi-circular dream catcher backdrop that serves as a projection screen, create a sacred space that both honours and evokes the young man’s Indigenous heritage.

Fathers and sons on a journey of growth and forgiveness in the entertaining, deeply moving Métis Mutt.

Get yourself out to the Aki Studio to see Métis Mutt, running to February 5; get your ticket info and online tix here.

Photos by Ryan Parker: Sheldon Elter

Powerful, deeply moving & bold investigation into the origins & echoes of the Black diaspora in Esu Crossing the Middle Passage

dbi
d’bi.young anitafrika in Esu Crossing the Middle Passage – photo by John Gundy

How do I describe what I witnessed at the matinee of The Watah Theatre’s production of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Esu Crossing the Middle Passage at Storefront Theatre yesterday?

Written and performed by d’bi.young anitafrika, assistant directed by Charmaine Headley and choreographed by BaKari I. Lindsay, with music direction by tuku, and live vocals/music by tuku and Amina Alfred, Esu Crossing the Middle Passage is Part One of The Orisha Trilogy – an epic work examining activism, divinity and the Black diaspora.

Utilizing mask, movement, song, spoken word, storytelling and verbatim theatre – the space transformed into the belly of a ship (Rachel Forbes, set designer), Esu Crossing the Middle Passage takes the audience along on the journey of an African womxn* captured and sold in the Transatlantic slave trade. But she is not alone on that terrifying crossing. The spirit of Esu (pronounced “eh-shoo”), the trickster god of Ifa and keeper of the crossroads, dwells within her.

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Foreground: tuku, with d’bi.young anitafrika & Amina Alfred in the background – photo by John Gundy

Emerging from the horror, tears and death of that ocean crossing – not to mention ongoing mourning for family and home lost and never to be seen again – the stolen Black lives that survive are sold on the auction block in America. While Esu Crossing the Middle Passage is the portion of the trilogy that focuses on the past, it draws parallels to the present-day systemic oppression and discrimination; a system that includes classism, racial profiling/carding, poverty, chauvinism and homophobia. We are reminded of modern-day slavery of the unfair practices seen in domestic help and farm work, precarious work and work that doesn’t pay a living wage.

The vocalizations create a soundscape that evokes not only geography but emotion; it resonates as a mournful lullaby, a story, a people. And the voice-over is the true story as told by Olunike Adeliyi (who will be appearing in the final installment of The Orisha Trilogy) – how she was detained and strip-searched during a border crossing, based on an accusation from a woman she didn’t even know. From the fear and humiliation of the slave ship to that in the airport, the play is a stark reminder that – even in 2016 – passage and policing are still dictated by skin colour, and those with brown or black skin are judged by a different set of rules. It also highlights the multiple layers of privilege (based on skin colour, gender, country of origin, class, sexuality, etc.) that some enjoy and others do not – and why movements like #BlackLivesMatter are so critical and, sadly, necessary.

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From top: Amina Alfred, tuku & d’bi.young anitafrika – photo by John Gundy

For me, the most poignant scene was of a little girl asking her granny questions, and how as her questions grow out from her own little world into the world at large, she discovers some harsh truths – and her happy, care-free innocence turns saddened and anxious. And yet, even out of this scene, there is hope in recalling that spark of divinity within – the divinity that ancestors brought with them across the ocean when it was all they had left. It left me in tears – equal parts sadness and optimism.

The relaxed, informal talkback that followed offered an opportunity for further discovery and closure – done in a space of respect, love, and a desire to share and learn. Audience members shared personal experiences, asked questions, offered comments. We learned that Esu has been demonized in some parts of the world and seen as the devil – part of a colonizing, systemic move to erase indigenous spirituality out of a people, stripping away culture and religion to replace it with European values and Christianity. This play comes with a trigger warning – and the production has a counsellor available on-site for those who need to speak with someone.

A powerful, deeply moving and bold investigation into the origins and echoes of the Black diaspora, Esu Crossing the Middle Passage pays respect to a painful past, with a glint of hope for the future. Esu tells those at the crossroads to choose carefully – and that goes for all of us.

With shouts to the design team: Rachel Forbes (set), Melissa Joakim (lighting), Waleed Abdulhamid (sound) and Holly Lloyd (costume) for their beautiful, evocative work on this production; and to the extra multitasking stage manager Kathleen Jones and assistant SM Sa/ShOYA Simpson.

Esu Crossing the Middle Passage continues at the Storefront Theatre until April 17; advance tickets are available online. Do yourselves a solid and go see this.

Part Two of The Orisha Trilogy: She, Mami Wata & the Pussy Witch Hunt runs May 4-22 at Theatre Passe Muraille; Part Three Bleeders will run Aug 4-14 (venue tba).

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