Relevant, urgent, hopeful—the powerful, resonant evolution of Bleeders in Lukumi

There is a buzz of excitement and anticipation, a festive feeling. Those of us among the audience who arrived early had been listening in on a final rehearsal, taking in the lush harmonies and powerful lyrics as we waited in the hallway. And when we enter the space, we are welcomed, offered something to drink. It’s like we’re coming into someone’s home—and we are.

We are in Studio 317 at 9 Trinity Street in the Distillery District, home to The Watah Theatre. And we are about to witness the evolution of Part Three of d’bi.young anitafrika’s Orisha Trilogy: Lukumi, a dub opera that began as Bleeders in a workshop production at the Theatre Centre during SummerWorks 2016. The revised, retitled piece has been mounted for three staged readings—and last night was opening night.

Led by playwright/director anitafrika and musical director Waleed Abdulhamid, the Lukumi ensemble is a combination of the original SummerWorks Bleeders cast and Watah Theatre 2016/17 Artists-in-Residence: Saba Akhtar, Angaer Arop, Anne-Audrey, Naomi Bain, Aisha Bentham, Savannah Clark, Raven Dauda, Andrenne Finnikin, Nickeshia Garrick, Mahlet Gebreyohannes, FaithAnn Mendes, muyoti mukonambi, Najla Nubyanluv, Sashoya Shoya Oya, Kamika Peters, Radha Pithadia, Racquel Smith, Alexandra Sproule and Ravyn Wngs.

I saw the 2016 SummerWorks production, back when it was called Bleeders. Anitafrika refers to the piece as an “experiment” that combines dub opera and African traditions of choral work. Emerging actors were paired up with more experienced actors, creating a mentorship bond, and the cast was given space to experiment with characterizations; for the reading workshop, each character is presented in duet, a miniature chorus of two actors. The script was reworked for the reading event, to fill in gaps that would otherwise be covered by staging/action, with anitafrika acting as both narrator and conductor.

Most of the original script is still there: Lukumi is a hero’s journey in a futuristic post-apocalyptic dystopia following a nuclear disaster at the Pickering nuclear plant—an event that has left mankind sterile, but for a special one, the Lukumi. Sent off by a council of black womxn* to seek the Ancestor Tree in the hopes of finding what humans have forgotten about their role in creation, Lukumi embarks on a warrior’s vision quest into the underworld.

Guided by the teachings and principles of eight animal guides, she finds what she is looking for and returns home—but perhaps too late. The One World Army, seeking fertile women to swell their ranks to continue the 1,000-years War, is banging on the door. The situation is dire and many of her friends sacrifice their lives—but, having learned humility and accepting responsibility for mankind’s destruction of the planet, Lukumi has within her the seed of hope.

The most remarkable revision is the prologue, with the addition of an all too familiar voiceover—the “America first” portion of Donald Trump’s inauguration speech—which puts forth an “us first,” isolationist philosophy. It is a chilling foundation for what is to come, seguing into a scene of protest over the rape of the land and the poisoning of the water—and, in particular, the unsafe proximity of nuclear power plants to residential areas. The performance features stand-out vocal solos from Nubyanluv (Ancestor Tree) and Garrick (Elephant); once again, Garrick’s “Rest in Peace, My Friends” brought tears to my eyes—as did the epilogue “Black Lives Matter,” where the entire cast brings us back to 2016 in a stark reminder of ongoing social inequality and the oppressive abuse of power (which animal guide Lion warned Lukumi against).

During the post-reading talkback, as the cast introduced themselves, a common thread for their experience of this work—and working with Watah Theatre—emerged: they felt they were held in a space of mutual respect, and in the spirit of creative experimentation and collaboration. The Artists-in-Residence have been working in relative solitude, each crafting a solo piece, and those who have spent a most of their emerging careers working alone marvelled at the collective experience. There is a deep sense of gratitude, family and ownership in this oasis of creativity and support.

Anitafrika and The Watah Theatre foster a sense of community and outreach, emphasizing the desire to be present, and show up both in life and in the work they undertake. It is an inclusive, embracing space, where artists are invited to come as they are, and learn and stretch. It is a community of creativity, sharing and mentorship that creates artists who are also leaders and activists. Please consider supporting The Watah Theatre by contributing to their GoFundMe campaign.

With shouts to Stage Manager Samson Brown and Artistic Producer Brett Haynes—it does, after all, take a village to mount such an epic work.

Relevant, urgent, hopeful—the powerful, resonant evolution of Bleeders in Lukumi. I look forward to seeing where this production goes next.

The Lukumi workshop reading has two more performances at The Watah Theatre’s space (9 Trinity Street, Studio 317): today (Saturday) at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm; it’s an intimate space and a truly compelling show, so get your tix in advance. In the meantime, check out the trailer for Lukumi:

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

Advertisements

Sacred, profane & magical – blood variations & intimate, powerful storytelling in BloodClaat

bloodclaatfotor2
d’bi.young anitafrika as Mudgu in BloodClaat – photos by Dee Kofri

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of BloodClaat: The Sankofa Trilogy Part 1, The Watah Theatre is remounting d’bi.young anitafrika’s award-winning Sankofa Trilogy, starting with a run of BloodClaat to open its 2016-17 Blk Bx Season [calendar link] at its home in Toronto’s Distillery District at 9 Trinity Street, Studio 317.

The Sankofa Trilogy takes us on the journey of three generations of remarkable Jamaican womxn,* starting with Mudgu Sankofa in BloodClaat, collectively directed, with the guidance and support of spiritual mentor Raven Dauda. A solo show inspired by anitafrika’s lived experience as an incest survivor, BloodClaat is part autobiography, part mythology as we follow 15-year-old Mudgu’s coming of age.

Mudgu lives with her grandmother while her mother prepares a new life for them in Canada. An active, precocious young woman who talks a mile a minute, she excels at net ball and adores her boyfriend Johnny. Navigating her grandmother’s strict house rules, her school and personal life, and a rough neighbourhood known for violence, she is also coming to terms with being a woman – and that means dealing with her monthly menstrual cycle and the power to create life (which her grandmother forbids her to do). Her world changes forever when she goes to live with her aunt and uncle for a while, and an act of violence in her grandmother’s neighbourhood ends in death.

Woven into Mudgu’s story are mythological tales and parables of strength and ritual; in particular, one of a warrior princess who gives a rallying cry to her people to rise up for freedom from their white plantation masters.

The theme of blood is the common thread: a womxn’s monthly blood, with the power of giving life and even healing; blood that’s shed in violence and in sacrifice; and the blood of goddess and ritual. And we see different perspectives and points of view on menstrual blood: shame, derision, celebration, creation and powerful magical properties.

bloodclaat-fotor-8
d’bi.young anitafrika in BloodClaat

Anitafrika is a profoundly compelling and engaging storyteller; and the staging in The Watah Theatre’s studio space makes for an extremely intimate, immersive experience. Throughout the story, the audience becomes Mudgu’s neighbours, her fellow bus passengers and the warrior princess’s people.

Told with humour, candor and emotional punch – incorporating voice, movement and posture, with very little in the way of costume changes – BloodClaat features sharply defined characters, exquisitely drawn by anitafrika. From the delightfully energetic and innocent Mudgu, to her sharp-tonged, strict grandmother and kind, gentle mother; her smooth talking boyfriend with swagger Johnny; her distracted, pious church lady aunt and deep-voiced, possessive uncle; the stuttering bus driver; and the fierce and inspiring warrior princess. We are rapt as we find ourselves alternating between being a fly on the wall and part of Mudgu’s story.

As is anitafrika’s custom, each performance is followed by a moment to catch your breath, and an opportunity to share comments and ask questions. When asked about BloodClaat and The Sankofa Trilogy, anitafrika described the generational through line and how she wanted to remount the work in a more intimate setting. As The Watah’s 2016-17 season experiments with a black box theatre experience, what happens when there is minimal production in a room filled with energy? Is it possible to move through a (r)evolution without resources? Confronted with limited funding and support, the stories still need to be told. Story moves us to change regardless. The houses have been small, but the impact has been huge; up close and personal, something magical happens in that space. And perhaps it is only in such an intimate space that storytelling medicine and healing – and profound, surprising growth – can happen.

An interesting divergence from the original production, noted by one audience member in her comment, was that there’s now a scene of Mudgu washing herself, her bed sheets and nightie. Bypassed for 10 years, anitafrika realized she’d been avoiding this reality of the story. Mudgu wakes up with menstrual leakage and needs to clean up. Of course she does! And in these moments, Mudgu must hold herself – and it’s become one of anitafrika’s favourite scenes.

Asked a more general question about what she says “No” to, anitafrika is mindful of corporate sponsorship. It’s important to know where your funding is coming from and who you’re potentially partnering with. Despite its seeming naiveté, anitafrika believes there must be a way to live your ethics and values – and that may mean revising your definition of success. It’s not about becoming rich and famous; it’s about living with purpose in service of your community. And while it’s not a new idea, “meaning leads to joy.”

With shouts to the creative team for their beautiful work on this production: Rachel Forbes (set and costumes), Andrenne Finnikin (ass’t set design) and Brett Haynes (lighting/producer).

Sacred, profane and magical. Blood variations and intimate, powerful storytelling in BloodClaat: The Sankofa Trilogy Part 1.

BloodClaat continues at The Watah Theatre’s space (9 Trinity Street, Studio 317) till Nov 20; it’s an intimate space and a truly compelling show, and you can get your tix in advance. Please note the 7:00 p.m. start time for evening performances.

The Sankofa Trilogy continues with Parts 2 and 3, with stories of Mudgu’s daughter Sekesu and granddaughter Benu in Benu (Feb 15-Mar 5, 2017) and Word! Sound! Powah! (April 5-28, 2017); this in addition to other productions scheduled for the 2016-17 season. All shows will be performed at The Watah Theatre’s home.

You can keep up with The Watah Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

Please consider supporting this unique and important theatre company by donating to The Watah Theatre’s Go Fund Me campaign.

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

SummerWorks: Post-nuclear disaster bravery, vision quest & hope in the powerful, moving, resonant Bleeders

Bleeders-400x500

d’bi.young anitafrika and Watah Theatre wrap the Orisha Trilogy’s epic exploration of the Black diaspora, divinity and the environment with Bleeders, a dub opera running in the Theatre Centre Mainspace as part of SummerWorks.

Part One of the Trilogy, Esu Crossing the Middle Passage, speaks to the past; Part Two, She Mami Wata and the Pussy WitchHunt is set in the present; and Bleeders takes us into the future. Directed by anitafrika, assisted by Nickeshia Garrick, Bleeders features choreography by Garrick, and composition by Waleed Abdulhamid (also the music director), assisted by tuku (also vocalist and vocal coach).

The Pickering nuclear power plant has exploded, destroying the environment, poisoning the water, rendering the population infertile and plunging the land into ongoing war. A group of Black womxn* survivors gathers to find a way to heal the land and its people. A lone bleeder (fertile) emerges to become their warrior, setting off on a vision quest in search of the Ancestor Tree. Meanwhile, an army draws closer, hell bent on finding bleeders in order to increase their numbers and continue the war.

The powerful, high-energy production features an equally outstanding ensemble: Olunike Adeliyi, d’bi.young anitafrika, Aisha Bentham, Raven Dauda, Nickeshia Garrick, Najla Nubyanluv, Sashoya Shoya Oya, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah and Ravyn Wngs. And the band – The 333, which performs with anitafrika on Aug 9 at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre – is Waleed Abdulhamid, Christopher Butcher, Odel Johnson and Patrick O’Reilly.

The devastating and hopeful storytelling is impactful, both visually (set/costumes by Rachel Forbes) and emotionally, told through song, mythology and the hero’s journey; and many of the ensemble take on the roles of the hero’s animal guides, moving with fluid precision. The effect is both magical and poignant. The lyrics and music resonate to the core, making you want to move and then weep; Garrick’s solo “Rest in Peace” and the “Black Lives Matter” finale are especially potent. Once again, I was left in tears.

In the end, we are reminded of what anitafrika described during the brief post-show talkback as “the intersectionality of oppression” – how all are affected when global greed endangers the climate and environment – and of our collective responsibility to do something about it.

Despite their best efforts at accessing funding through grants, the Watah Theatre is in dire financial straits and needs our help in order to survive. Please consider giving to their Go Fund Me campaign; and keep the vitally important company alive so it can continue providing artist training and support, and produce works that tell stories that need to be told.

Post-nuclear disaster bravery, vision quest and hope in the powerful, moving and resonant Bleeders.

Bleeders continues at the Theatre Centre Mainspace until Aug 14. And look for a life beyond SummerWorks – this is just the beginning.

*This is the playwright’s preferred spelling of “women.”

Dreams, desires & the drive for freedom in thoughtful & farcical Up the Garden Path

DSC_8061 (1)
Virgilia Griffith, Sochi Fried & Marcel Stewart – photo by Lyon Smith

Obsidian Theatre opened its production of Lisa Codrington’s Up the Garden Path, directed by Philip Aikin, at Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) last week – and I caught the show last night, which also happened to be Barbados Night, and the house was packed with an enthusiastic and appreciative, mostly Bajan, audience.

Set in the late 1960s, the play opens in Barbados. When Rosa (Virgilia Griffith) comes to Alma (Arlene Duncan) needing a place to stay, willing to work for her room and board, she is first met with disdain – for Rosa is the daughter of Alma’s late husband and her mother, the town seamstress, infamous for taking other women’s husbands to her bed. But Rosa has skills with a sewing needle and Alma’s son Edmund (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) needs to look his best for an upcoming job interview to be a fruit picker in Canada – and Alma intends for him to wear his father’s suit, which is way too big for him. Alma’s younger sister Amelia (Raven Dauda) is pragmatic about the situation, and possibly even sympathetic to Rosa’s plight, and Rosa finds a reluctant home. When Edmund injures his ankle the day before he’s to leave for the job, and needing the income it would provide, Alma and Amelia disguise Rosa as a man, in the suit she altered for Edmund, and send her in his place. And that’s where the real adventure begins for Rosa – in a vineyard in the Niagara region, where instead of being a fruit picker, farmer Isaac (Alex McCooeye) tasks her with scaring off the large flocks of starlings that plague his grapes. It is there that she is also enlisted as a scene partner by Isaac’s aspiring actress younger sister Laura (Sochi Fried) and – even stranger – is called upon by the ghost of an American soldier (Marcel Stewart) to help him leave this earthly plain.

The storytelling uses elements of farce (so aptly complemented by the set design, with its doors, shutters, window frames and corrugated tin), as well as Shakespeare (young woman forced by circumstance to be disguised as a man) and Shaw (Laura’s prize role is Joan of Arc), fairy tale and ghost story – the once upon a time journey is strong here. The play features some great moments of comedy, and a farcical edge that cuts through to some thought-provoking truths. As Rosa goes from outsider, to fish out of water, to self-discovery, this is also a hero’s journey of discovery and transformation.

DSC_8174 (1)
Arlene Duncan, Ronnie Rowe Jr. & Raven Dauda – photo by Lyon Smith

Up the Garden Path’s ensemble is outstanding. As the proud family matriarch Alma, Duncan is a sharp-tongued, formidable force to be reckoned with; a woman who’ll suffer no foolishness, she longs for her son to grow up and become a breadwinner for the family. Dauda’s Amelia is the perfect foil to Alma; resourceful and irreverent, she easily trades humourous barbs with her sister as she helps build her nephew into a man – all the while dreaming of a reunion with her sweetheart in England. As Edmund, Rowe Jr. brings a strong sense of a child-like and wide-eyed man boy; a young man with a serious sweet tooth who must take a job in Canada to help support his family, when all he wants to do is open up a sweet shop. Griffith brings a quiet, but potent, unassuming dignity to Rosa; a young woman reviled for her parentage, but tolerated for her tailoring skills. Buffeted here and there by circumstance and those who have power over her life, Rosa has an inner strength that may even surprise herself. And she’s by far the most sane one of the lot.

Stewart gives a powerful, multilayered performance as the ghost soldier Marcel; a bright, loyal and good-humoured man who struggles with horrific memories of war and racial violence. He longs to leave this earth as much as Rosa wanted to leave the judgement and exclusion she faced back home. McCooeye’s Isaac is comical combination of authoritarian know-it-all and ridiculous, scared little bully; a history nerd and proud 1812 redcoat re-enactor (he’s in uniform throughout), his vulnerability is exposed when he needs to step in as tour guide at Fort George, and his mind set on battling the challenges at the family vineyard. As his drama queen sister Laura, Fried gives an energetic and charismatic performance of youthful exuberance, self-absorption and passion; dying to play Shaw’s Joan of Arc, she’s convinced the role will be her ticket to the big time.

DSC_8232 (1)
Virgilia Griffith & Alex McCooeye – photo by Lyon Smith

With shouts to the design team: set/costume designer Anna Treusch, lighting designer Steve Lucas, sound designer Verne Good and production designer Cameron Davis for bringing the vision of these very different environments to life in one space: Rosa’s Barbados town, and the Niagara region farm and vineyard.

Dreams, desires and the drive for freedom in thoughtful and farcical Up the Garden Path.

You should go see this. Up the Garden Path continues in the TPM Mainspace until Apr 10. For advance tickets, call 416-504-7529 or order online.