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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The incendiary impact of one man’s struggle in the ring in the electric, gut-punching The Royale

Dion Johnstone. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsey. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Soulpepper transports us to 1905, where an African-American boxer tests his mettle against the formerly retired white heavyweight champion, with incendiary results that reach far beyond the two men in the ring. This is the electric, gut-punching Canadian premiere of Marco Ramirez’s The Royale, inspired by the true story of Jack Johnson, directed by Guillermo Verdecchia and running at the Young Centre.

Determined to better his personal best of being crowned African-American Heavyweight Champion, boxer Jay “The Sport” Jackson sets his sights on being heavyweight champion of the world, convincing fight promoter Max (Diego Matamoros) to arrange a contest between him and retired Champ Bixby; a tall order, as the sport is segregated and a Black fighter has never faced a white fighter in the ring. As Jackson trains for the historic match with his manager Wynton (Alexander Thomas) and new sparring partner Fish (Christef Desir), a visit from his sister Nina (Sabryn Rock) forces him to consider the sociopolitical and personal impacts of this match—especially if he wins.

While insisting that the focus of his lonely ambition and sacrifice is about personal excellence and universal recognition as heavyweight champ, Jay gradually finds himself unable to continue shrugging off the racial and political—and personal—implications of his endeavour. And it’s not until the final charged scene in the ring with the Champ that we realize the great personal stakes driving him—and where he struggles with himself and against a long, violent history of systemic racism and oppression.

Incorporating hip hop-inspired beats and rhythms (composer and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne), and fight choreography (Simon Fon) that focuses on both the physicality and mental state of the fighter—The Royale creates the music in the boxing ring (set and costumes by Ken MacKenzie) with movement, sound and dialogue that reflects the voice inside the fighter’s head with present, primal ferocity and cocky self-assuredness. All of this in 90 minutes and six compelling rounds of storytelling—and while there are no actual physical blows exchanged, the result is both mind-blowing and gut-wrenching—punctuated by the rhythmic soundscape and startling, atmospheric lighting design (Michelle Ramsey).

Breath-taking work from the ensemble in this intense, profoundly human story. Johnstone gives a charismatic and intensely focused performance as the ambitious, hard-working Jackson; confident, flirtatious and driven, while Jackson’s deflection of personal questions appears to be a shrewd PR move to drive public curiosity, we learn he has a far more urgent reason for protecting his privacy. Johnstone’s Jackson is nicely matched by Desir’s youthful, hungry Fish; an up and coming young fighter who’s impressed Jackson in the ring, Fish is grateful for the opportunity to quit his day job, and becomes a loyal and generous supporter and colleague on the road to Jackson’s life-changing match.

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Dion Johnstone & Sabryn Rock. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Michelle Ramsey. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Thomas exudes warmth, wisdom and pragmatic good humour as Wynton; more than just Jackson’s manager and trainer, Wynton is a friend and mentor—and the play’s title comes from his story as a young fighter, at a place where a young Black man could make one to two weeks’ wages in an unusual fight match where the winner takes all. Rock is a force to be reckoned with as Jackson’s sister Nina; fiercely protective of her family and acutely aware of the implications of Jackson’s ambitions, Nina sees what he cannot—that this fight goes way beyond a single boxing match. Her words haunt Jackson during the fight, driving home the terrible truth of her words. And Matamoros gives an entertaining turn as the sharp, skeptical promoter Max; while he’s likeable enough through the gruff worldliness, you know Max isn’t entirely on the up and up.

The Royale shows us how one human being’s solitary sacrifice and actions can ripple out, becoming a tidal wave of universal response—and, win or lose, ambition and change both come at a price.

The Royale continues at the Young Centre until November 11. Get advance tickets online or call the box office: 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Check out the production teaser: