A journey into the light & dark of self-discovery in the bittersweet, courageous Welcome to my Underworld

Clockwise, from top left: Grace Thompson, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Samson Brown, Radha S. Menon, Maddie Bautista & Bilal Baig. Set design by Brett Haynes. Lighting design by Sharmylae Taffe-Fletcher. Photo by Sophia Thompson-Campbell.

 

RARE Theatre Company, in partnership with Soulpepper, presents the world premiere of Welcome to my Underworldwritten by Bilal Baig, Maddie Bautista, Samson Brown, Simone Dalton, Nikoletta Erdelyi, Carolyn Hetherington, Radha S. Menon, Ellen Ringler and Grace Thompson, on stage at the Young Centre. Dramaturged/directed by RARE’s AD Judith Thompson, choreographed by Monica Dottor, and featuring original composition/live accompaniment by Olivia Shortt, a 10-year-old girl’s search for her truest self weaves nine individual stories into one as we follow her into the world of the shadow self.

Anchored by 10-year-old Willow (Grace Thompson), who struggles with her own sense of self, Welcome to my Underworld is part fairy tale, part hero’s journey, part autobiography as each performer presents their own story; a place where light and dark meet, and where spirits are tested and tempered. Possessing of a sharp, curious mind and keenly interested in how others navigate the world, Willow and her imaginary friend Mara invite the other characters in to share their stories.

There are the infuriating stories of a pre-transitioned trans man being confronted in a woman’s washroom, and a Trinidadian lesbian’s connection with an HIV+ gay father figure-told with humour, tenderness and heartbreak by Brown. The harrowing experiences of the elderly surviving a terrifying adverse reaction, apparently common among seniors, to a post-op medication (a feisty, fighter Harrington); and the feelings of family betrayal and confusion as an Indian woman is driven alongside a truck full of cattle to her new home at an assisted living facility (a spirited, poignant performance from Menon). Navigating prejudice regarding competence and attractiveness based on Roma (“gypsy”) ethnicity and physical ability (the candid, suffers no fools Erdelyi, performing from a wheelchair). Childhood innocence and trust lost during a time of burgeoning sexuality (a delightful, heart-wrenching performance from Bautista, a bi, Saudi Arabia-born Filipina).

There are the social castaways dealing with addiction and mental illness (fierce and lyrical performances from Menon and Baig); observed by Willow while in the psych ward. And queer, genderqueer Baig’s sassy, poignant secret party girl persona, fleeing their home and fearing attack from both parents and strangers, shares a narrow escape that hearkens back to the recent tragedy of missing and murdered gay men in the Village. Humourous, heart-breaking and eye-opening, each shares a broad range of lived experience from their own unique perspective—calling upon us to examine who we’ve ignored, shoved aside or disrespected. Who will love or miss the disenfranchised, the social pariahs, those living on the fringes?

Shortt’s live onstage music and pre-show mix blends sound effect with soundtrack, tailored perfectly to each story; and Dottor’s choreography is playful, balletic and emotive as it visually weaves one tale into another. Haynes’s set deftly combines black/white, dark/light; the central image a tree of life, its branches reaching for the sky as its roots dig into the earth.

Playful, poetic and funny—at times harrowing, infuriating and heart-breaking, the storytelling is raw, candid and impossible to ignore. These are stories from those whose voices are seldom heard, let alone given space to speak their truth. While Welcome to my Underworld promises no happy endings, it does bring a sense of hope and resilience. We all need to be seen, be heard, be loved and respected. We all need to feel safe to be ourselves. And we need more theatre like this.

Welcome to my Underworld continues at the Young Centre in the Tankhouse Theatre until May 25; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

ICYMI: Check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with dramaturg/director Judith Thompson on Stageworthy Podcast.

 

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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.