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.

Sound of the Beast
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.

Interview with Andrea Scott on upcoming Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife @ SummerWorks

Headshot - Orange

Andrea Scott is an award-winning Toronto-based actor, playwright and producer at Call Me Scotty Productions. Her plays have appeared in the New Ideas Festival and SummerWorks (Eating Pomegranates Naked and Better Angels: A Parable – the latter is also featured on Expect Theatre’s PlayMe podcast), in a Mixed Company Theatre touring production (Frenemies) and, most recently, at Solar Stage (Princesses Don’t Grow on Trees). Next up for Scott is a SummerWorks production of Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife, which “explores feminism, slut shaming and the power dynamic that exists between the genders as viewed from Mata Hari’s prison cell in 1917.”* Andrew Lamb is directing, and the cast includes David Christo, Lisa Karen Cox, Kimwun Perehinec and Paula Wing.

LWMC: Hi, Andrea. Thanks for taking the time to talk about Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife – and thanks for giving me the opportunity to read it first. Things have been cooking for you lately, with Expect Theatre for the PlayMe broadcast of Better Angels and a recent production of Princesses Don’t Grow on Trees at Solar Stage. Quick side question: What’s your experience been shifting between writing for adult audiences to younger audiences?

AS: Less swearing. Or maybe more, now that I think about it. When I write for children, I have to be very conscious not to give the children my ‘adult’ voice. I have a habit of using big words or a vocabulary that is rather expansive. Children are so smart and observant, and when they say something insightful, it takes adults by surprise. That is a challenge to write because you don’t want people to hear it and say, ‘Oh, that’s just a clever adult putting their words into the mouth a child.’ I remember feeling that way after reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

LWMC: Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife features Mata Hari as the central figure. How did you become drawn to her story?

AS: I was asked to be in a reading of Harriet’s Daughter by M. NourbeSe Philips in the 2013 AfterRock Festival produced by b current. The character I played was obsessed with Mata Hari, so in order to understand my character better, I researched who she was in history. I thought I knew who she was and was surprised to learn that there was little to no hard evidence that led to her execution. What was clear was that she was very open about her sexual appetite, enjoyed showing her body, and entirely unapologetic. A woman like that could only be trouble in 1917.

LWMC: The action shifts back and forth between Mata Hari’s cell, in the hours before her execution in 1917, and a present-day university women’s studies course that includes a lecture and discussion about Mata Hari. What made you decide to structure the play in this way?

AS: I was very excited about this woman’s story and when I would tell people about Mata Hari, I came to realize that most didn’t know who she was at all. The professor conceit came out of the desire to inform and educate the audience. Early drafts had him directing the lecture at the audience, but Marjorie Chan, AD at Cahoots Theatre, felt it would be more dynamic to have another character with which the professor could interact. Nobody knows what Mata Hari’s last hours were like, so this is an imagining. What is known is that she had two cellmates and was never informed of an execution date. Right up until the guard showed up at her cell, she believed she would be released. She seemed unaware that an espionage charge was a guaranteed death sentence when over 50,000 French soldiers had been slaughtered at the Battle of Verdun.

LWMC: The play draws some sharp social and feminist parallels, and the discussions of gender, sexuality and colour – and even ownership – between Mata Hari and her cellmate are mirrored to some extent in the debates between the professor and his female student in the present day. What do you hope the audience will take away from these perspectives?

AS: That, unfortunately, slut shaming between women is just as bad as when men do it and it has always existed. That even in prison there exists a hierarchy entrenched because of racism and privilege. Mata Hari, who was a Dutch citizen, looks at her cellmate Helene and asks her where she is from even though Helene is clearly French. There were many black people in France, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a lot of evidence of this fact in French plays or literature. Alexandre Dumas’ work was being read in French prisons and he was a black man. Race and gender politics have always been around but now we have a more open society where one can discuss it without reprisal (hopefully).

LWMC: And was there anything that surprised you as you were doing the research for the play?

How little things have changed regarding military protocol if you are identified as a threat to national security. Mata Hari was taken into custody, interrogated repeatedly, denied access to her lawyer on many occasions, had her correspondence intercepted, and essentially convicted for being a sexual woman. Several years after her execution a prosecutor on the case admitted that they did not have enough evidence to kill a cat.

I also touch on the precarious employment issue plaguing university professors. I was completely unaware of how little they make, their poor treatment, and the assumption that once you’re a professor you’ve got it made. It was a bad situation 10 years ago and now it’s even worse as universities move towards operating on a business model treating education as a commodity.

LWMC: You’re currently crowdfunding for the production on Indiegogo. Tell us about that. And what other ways can folks support Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife?

AS: I recognize the impetus to simply split the box office after a SummerWorks show and make a little bit of money beforehand in order to pay for supplies, but I really want to pay my team for their skills. I did a Fringe show many years ago, and after 5 weeks of rehearsals and 7 shows, I was paid something like $20 and I was like, ‘Nah, Man!’ My base amount is $500 per person, so usually I need about $5,000 in the business account by July so that I can pay for rehearsal space, marketing, insurance and contingency items. By the time the show has had a run and the box office is reconciled, I’ve usually made enough to give everyone that $500 in September. This year, I’m being way more ambitious by applying for grants because rather than $500 (which breaks down to $100/week/member), I’d like to pay them $600 a week, which approximates the Indie 2.1 contract. We’ll see. It may be nuts and everyone will simply get $500, but I had to try.

If people don’t have the funds, I’d just like them to re-post the link or talk about the play. Nothing can replace good word of mouth.

LWMC: Anything else you’d like to shout out?

AS: The tiny play I wrote for Wrecking Ball #18 last July has been expanded into a full length piece called All Most Be Longing, and there will be an excerpt read at Factory Theatre Wired in June.

LWMC: Cool! I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word? Specious

What’s your least favourite word? Scumbag

What turns you on? Intelligence with a sense of wit

What turns you off? Self-centred behaviour with lack of awareness of other’s feelings

What sound or noise do you love? The sound of birds in the morning

What sound or noise do you hate? CNN on all the time.

What is your favourite curse word? Fuckery said with an English accent

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue? Professor

What profession would you not like to do? Labour lawyer on the side of the companies

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? You did alright. Here’s a dirty martini with extra olives.

Thanks, Andrea!

Don’t Talk to Me Like I’m Your Wife will run during SummerWorks 2016 (Aug 4 – 14). Take a look at the YouTube fundraising video:

 

 

* Call Me Scotty Productions website