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.

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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.