Identity, recognition & family in the fascinating, moving, intimate Canadian Rajah

Jon De Leon & Barbara Worthy. Costumes by Jennifer Triemstra-Johnston. Photo by Kelsi Dewhurst.

 

The Canadian Rajah Collective presents the world premiere of Dave Carley’s Canadian Rajah, directed by Sarah Phillips and running in the ballroom at Campbell House Museum; it’s the true story of Esca Brooke, the first-born son of one of the White Rajahs of Sarawak who was whisked away as a small child and into the care of an English vicar and his wife, who eventually settled in Madoc, Ontario. This fascinating, moving and intimate two-hander gives a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the history, memories and motivations observed by Brooke and his father Rajah Charles Brooke’s English wife Marguerita (Ranee Ghita), culminating in a tension-filled and revelatory meeting at her home in England.

Canadian Rajah begins with two individual pieces of personal storytelling as Esca Brooke (Jon De Leon) waits and his white Rajah father’s English wife Ranee (Barbara Worthy*) prepares and stalls in advance of their meeting at her home in England. Each fills in the events that transpired before and after Esca’s birth; and the subsequent discovery of his identity and his pursuit of recognition from her are revealed from very different perspectives.

Esca is a brown boy raised by the white British Daykins in Canada, an object of curiosity and gossip in his adopted country. Earning scholarships and respect in his academic and professional endeavours despite his otherness—and aided by the addition of the second name Brooke—he discovers that his mother was Dayang Mastiah, a Malay princess, and his father was the white British Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke. Ranee was Brooke’s British wife; a “brood mare” and vital source of income to his Rajah title, courtesy of her wealthy family; she also bore him sons. Reminiscences are shared through bittersweet swatches of memory—rife with the excitement and adventure of new worlds, experiences and people; and seasoned with grief, loss, and an unbreakable sense of family loyalty and protection.

Compelling and sharp-witted performances from De Leon and Worthy, who both portray various other characters native to the respective landscapes of these individuals. In a performance that conveys both profound dignity and a heartbreaking sense of pain, De Leon’s Esca is a proud, well-educated man without a country; not looking for fame, fortune or position from official public recognition from the Brooke family, he seeks only to ease the hurt of prejudice and racism experienced by his children—in particular, his daughter Grace. Worthy’s sharply drawn portrayal of Ranee is both playfully bold and mercilessly cunning; ranging from Ranee’s precocious youth as a forward-thinking young woman out for adventure in an exotic new world, to the imperious dowager keeping a close watch and tight rein on her family, with special attention on the political climate at large. Eschewing British culture and social expectations, and relishing her new title and position, Ranee embraces the culture and language of her new home; but the discovery that her husband has a “native” wife and son is too much—and sets off a calculated series of events aimed at protecting her family and their kingdom.

And though these two characters are at odds, facing off in the final scene during their meeting, similar traits and motivations emerge: they’re both survivors of unusual and tragic circumstances, adapting to and thriving in their new homes, and fiercely determined to secure a bright and prosperous future for their children. And while British imperialism and publicly recognized noble status have the upper hand in this scenario—one gets the sense that there were no winners here.

Canadian Rajah continues at Campbell House Museum until February 17; advance tickets are available online—strongly recommended, given the intimate nature of, and limited seating in, the upstairs ballroom venue.

*After Chick Reid came down with pneumonia and was unable to continue with the production, Worthy stepped into the role of Ranee as a last-minute replacement. Reid is recovering and doing well.

 

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You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious & deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

 

Better late than never to the party, as I finally got out to see Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s SummerWorks hit Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy, directed by Aaron Willis—now in its final week in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.

Written and performed by Cullen and Johnson, who also collaborated on the lyrics, with music by Johnson, Stupidhead! is a part musical, part stand-up, part personal storytelling journey of Cullen’s experience living with dyslexia.

Stupidhead! is Cullen’s childhood dream of being in a musical come true. And, despite her lack of training, experience and self-reported ability, she was determined to make it happen; and recruited her good friend Johnson to help her write the music. Johnson joins her onstage, accompanying her on piano and back-up vocals—reacting to Cullen’s performance throughout, sometimes cracking up along with the audience.

Pointing out that dyslexia affects people differently, Cullen has no trouble with reading and writing—and as a child enjoyed escaping into writing poetry, and stories about the adventures of a silly koala and rabbit. Diagnosed at a young age, Cullen relates her struggles with math, organizational skills and directions, finding herself mentally lost at school and physically lost in her own neighbourhood—and, above all, labelled. And that label put her in the position of having to deal with ignorance and lack of compassion from others, making her sense of otherness feel even more isolating and humiliating, and becoming a part of her identity.

Her anecdotes about trying to fit in are both hilarious and moving—from her grade three poetry contest nemesis (now a CFL football player), to being lost on her own street, to two weeks in a puppet camp in Vermont as a young adult and her love of Jesus Christ Superstar—all delivered with genuine feeling and gusto. While it’s a show about the “glamour of failure,” it’s also a show about throwing off the chains of shame and isolation. In the end, Cullen avoids tying it up neatly, but emerges from the darker moments of her experience into a place of hope and determination.

Stupidhead!
Katherine Cullen in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper

Cullen shines onstage. An engaging, genuine and charming performer, she’s gutsy and kick-ass, but also vulnerable and fragile. As she schools us on dyslexia, she gives us the straight goods about what it’s like to live inside her head. And she gives ‘er with the music, putting her all into performing the songs, from belted out numbers to gentle, heartfelt ballads. She and Johnson make a terrific duo. Johnson is pretty damn funny herself; and there’s a lovely tender moment of compassion and understanding between them that rings with friendship and love. And their anthem of “don’t give up!” brought tears to my eyes.

With big shouts to set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Jennifer Lennon for the cool and beautiful neurosciencey environment.

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious and deeply poignant Stupidhead!

Stupidhead! continues in the TPM Mainspace, closing on Apr 2; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529. Check out Hallie Seline’s interview with Cullen and Johnson for In the Greenroom.

And here’s the trailer: