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.

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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

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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.