Two years ago, I had the honour and pleasure of getting a sneak peek at Heather Babcock’s debut novel Filthy Sugar after she approached me to give it a read and write a review blurb. Published by Inanna Publications, it’s set to be released on May 26—and was to have its official launch in Toronto at Queen Books the same day; but since brick and mortar book stores have had to move online, and with events cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, authors and book sellers are now relying on virtual shout-outs and online book sales.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Filthy Sugar (and think it would make a great movie); and hope that Babcock will get to celebrate the launch of the book with colleagues and loved ones soon. Here’s my review blurb:
Filthy Sugar takes us to the mid-1930s, from the struggles of a working-class slum, to the hustle and excitement on and off the burlesque stage. Here, we follow redheaded heroine Wanda Whittle’s rise and fall from fame in a journey of self-discovery that reveals desires and reserves of strength she never knew she possessed. Erotic, compelling and full of richly textured characters, Heather Babcock’s storytelling is equal parts moxie and poetry—tinted with the heartbroken nostalgia of memory and lost dreams; and sparkling with striking, evocative imagery. More than a backstage pass into this world, Filthy Sugar shines a light on the challenges faced by working-class women. Dancing as fast as they can in order to survive, they must navigate the unapologetic misogyny and hypocritical social codes that govern their bodies and behaviour as they pursue their hopes, dreams and desires. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?
It will be some time before we’ll be able to attend readings and book launches in person again; in the meantime, you can get your own sneak peek at Filthy Sugar with Babcock’s excerpt reading on YouTube:
Shaquille Pottinger, Lisa Hamalainen, Jack Comerford, Joe Recinos & Morgan Johnson. Costume design by Beatriz Arevalo. Mask design by Alexandra Simpson. Puppet design by Patricia Mader. Dress rehearsal photo by Producer Rebecca Ballarin.
Animacy Theatre Collective and Arts in the Parks present Lisa Hamalainen’s interdisciplinary, land-based theatrical nature walk There is No Word for Wilderness, directed by Alexandra Simpson and running at Earl Bales Park (4169 Bathurst St.), Picnic Area #5. Mask, puppetry and music combine in this delightful, magical and thought-provoking journey of self-discovery, inner healing and wisdom gained as a young woman ventures into the forest. With the help of some unexpected guides, she reconnects with the land and finds her true heart. The inclusive and informative post-performance Anishinaabe ceremony and teaching, facilitated by Shelba Deer, adds context and depth of understanding of the piece.
When a Young Woman (Lisa Hamalainen) finds herself stranded on a rural highway, she finds an unlikely guide in a talking Hare (Shaquille Pottinger, puppet designed by Patricia Mader)! As they make their way through the forest, they encounter other animal guides along the way—a wise Owl (Joe Recinos), a sly Fox (Morgan Johnson) and a drowsy Fish (Jack Comerford)—and a walk in the woods becomes a journey of self-discovery, inner healing, and reconnection with the land, air and water.
We are led from scene to scene by stage manager Zoë Ruth Fairless (who also plays the ukulele) and accompanied by composer Anders Azzopardi on trombone, making our way in a counter-clockwise direction on a circular path as we follow the Young Woman on her journey. As you walk between scenes, you become aware of the sights, sounds and smells of the forest: the crunch of the gravel path beneath your feet, the aroma of leaves and wood, the brilliance of green trees against a blue sky—and, later, crickets chirping as the light wanes and darkness falls upon the campfire circle.
Pottinger is a delight as Hare—our jovial guide and narrator—who is ready for his close-up; his reactions to unknown human trappings like cellphones and reception are a reminder that our machines are not as vital to our lives as we think they are; and are kind of silly, when you think about it. There’s more than meets the eye to Hamalainen’s fastidious, driven, professional Young Woman. While she’s caught in the rat race of a job she despises, she’s no soulless cog in the corporate machine; her compassion and love of nature make her open to this journey and the self-awareness and wisdom it brings.
Recinos brings a graceful majesty to the wise, enigmatic Owl; his words of wisdom are like a puzzle for the Young Woman to solve. There is no word for wilderness in his language—for him, home is wherever you are, where your heart is. Johnson combines woodland animal cuteness with an edgy trickster vibe as Fox. Don’t let her adorable appearance fool you; she’s a savvy, sly one—and sees more than just a fellow creature of the forest when she looks at Hare. Comerford does double duty, with two sharply drawn contrasting characters: Young Man, the Young Woman’s self-absorbed, hyper-ambitious jerk of a co-worker; and the joyful, curious and cheeky Fish. Magically able to move about on land for a time, Fish reminds us that our discarded plastic bottles, bags and trash create horrific, dangerous conditions for the creatures of the water, not to mention the water itself.
The performance is both complimented and highlighted by the beautiful, imaginative puppet (Patricia Mader), mask (Alexandra Simpson) and costume (Beatriz Arevalo) designs—utilizing fabric, wood and recycled items. Azzopardi’s composition incorporates vocal and instrumental music to great effect; and we’re even invited to join in.
Following each performance, the audience is invited to stay seated around a campfire (back at the starting point) for Anishinaabe ceremony and teaching with Shelba Deer. Relating traditional beliefs, and spiritual and healing practices, Deer’s teaching offers a deeper understanding and context for the performance we’ve just witnessed; sharing the wisdom that—Indigenous or settler—we are all human beings walking this Earth, partaking of Mother Earth’s bounty. And each of us has a spirit and a heart—the awareness and acknowledgement of which will help us discover our true paths.
Like the lanterns we carry throughout this journey, we are all small points of light energy on the Earth. And even if you live in the city, standing on concrete, you’re still standing on the Earth—living, breathing, drinking and eating on this planet. We are not separate from the land; we are a part of it. So we’d better take good care.
There is No Word for Wilderness continues in Earl Bales Park on September 19-21, 24-26 and 28 at 6:00 p.m., with rain dates on Sept 22 and 29; admission is free. There will be an ASL interpreter present for Shelba Deer’s post-performance ceremony and teaching on Sept 26. Check out Animacy’s Facebook event for more info.
Directions: Earl Bales Park, Picnic Area #5. For travel directions (by car or TTC), scroll down on the show’s web page. Look out for the flagpole with the Canadian flag at the end—there will be Arts in the Parks canopy and banners to mark the spot.
All performances are relaxed performances (for more info on accessibility, relaxed performances and the ASL interpretation, scroll down on the show’s web page). Come dressed for cooler evening September temperatures and wear comfy walking shoes. Bug spray is also a good idea, especially along the forest trail; if you forget, show staff and volunteers have some to share.
Mandy E. MacLean. Lighting design by Logan Raju Cracknell. Photo by Matt Carter.
The hiraeth collective’s hiraeth, created and performed by Mandy E. MacLean, and directed for this SummerWorks production by Leah Holder, takes the audience on an intimate solo show personal history tour of teenage memories, with a longing for identity and a sense of belonging at the heart of the storytelling. Nostalgic, wistful and endearing in its humour and poignancy, it’s a reminder that you can’t really go home again, but you can visit for a brief time and maybe even take away something new. hiraeth opened at the Media Arts Centre in the Gamma Gallery yesterday afternoon.
MacLean joins the audience in the round, bursting with nervous energy and apology. A soldier’s kid who grew up in a Canadian Forces PMQ (Private Military/Married Quarters), as an adult, she searches through the dark of the basement, shouting to her mother upstairs as she rummages through storage containers to find her packed away stuff in a garbage bag. This personal archeological dig through the past reveals cassette tapes of teen journaling and music favourites—taking her back to a younger self who overheard parental arguments and feared for her father’s safety.
An awkward, bespectacled middle schooler nicknamed “Dung Beetle” by a mean girl classmate, and experiencing those awkward, wonderful first crush feels for a boy named Michael, she’s also navigating the excitement and concerns about the upcoming Y2K New Year and the big changes she anticipates it will bring. A flashlight becomes a male friend—not her boyfriend—and her other hand, wearing her glasses, becomes herself as she re-enacts a first kiss and later dancing at the New Year’s Eve party. Her heart set on the ever-evasive Michael, that first kiss was merely a practice run for him, and she’s painfully aware and wary of advancing her already precarious social standing by any assumptions that she was with a “loser”.
It’s an intimate, immersive experience—where the audience becomes her confidantes, fellow party goers and even her mother—as MacLean includes and addresses us directly while mapping out the scary, awkward, confusing and marvelous moments from her life as a teen; in search of home and identity, and mourning what was and what could have been, in an endearingly funny, vulnerable and poignant performance.
“Hiraeth” is a Welsh term for a feeling of homesickness for a home you can’t go back to—or maybe never even existed. Part nostalgia, part grief experience, part interior journey, hiraeth lives up to its name. You can’t go home again—and the trip you take through memory and personal artifacts maybe only highlight what you took with you. But maybe the attempt can unearth something new.
hiraeth continues in the Toronto Media Arts Centre Gamma Gallery (second floor, hang a hard right when you get to the top of the stairs) until August 17; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; seating is limited, so consider booking ahead.
The Velvet Duke faces off with our inner demons in Velvet Wells’ Personal Demon Hunter, running in the back room on the main floor at the Imperial Pub. Part self-help workshop, part stand-up and all heart, personal storytelling, improv and music combine to create a casual, open-minded space where audience members are gently invited to share their personal demons.
Motivational speaker Velvet Duke (Wells) welcomes us into the space, a workshop designed to address our inner demons–and also, as his puppet friends suggest, our angels. Diving into family history, lived experience and the ongoing inner voice we all possess, Duke shares his story, through anecdote and music—accompanied by Alan Val, Wells’ partner in the band OverDude, on electric guitar, doing some musical improving; and stage manager Alan Leightizer on laptop—and invites us to share ours.
Wells is a totally relatable and approachable presence, finding common ground as he shares personal stories that resonate; and ever so gently inviting consensual audience participation. His ultimate message: You are enough and you don’t need growth to be a person of value because you already are a person of value.
Father issues, self-doubt, unhealthy family dynamics, imposter syndrome, toxic workplaces—the space and its occupants are open-minded and open-hearted during the sharing. And saying it out loud, naming the demons, is a good step toward exorcising them. Angels and demons in our everyday lives—around us and within us—our outer and inner voices of positivity and negativity. Wells encourages us to push those negative influences and voices aside, and find and keep positive connections—whether it’s on stage behind a microphone or at our jobs, wherever.
Person Demon Hunter continues at the Imperial Pub for four more performances: July 11-13 at 8:00 and July 13 at 3:00; check the show page for advance tickets.
Wells and Leightizer are also cast members of The Dandies, who rock Star Trek-themed improv in Holodeck Follies.
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 Underworld, written 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.
Rose ensemble, with Hailey Gillis centre. Set, lighting & projection design by Lorenzo Savoini. Costume design by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Soulpepper continues its Family Festival programming with the world premiere of Rose—a brand new original musical three in years in the making, adapted from Gertrude Stein’s only children’s book The World Is Round. With music and book by composer and music director Mike Ross, and lyrics and book by Sarah Wilson; directed by Gregory Prest, assisted by Jennifer Weisz; and choreographed by Monica Dottor, this delightful, inspirational story follows the journey of the nine-year-old titular hero as she sets off in search of her identity. Rose opened at the Young Centre last week; I caught the matinée yesterday.
Narrator Frank the logger (Frank Cox-O’Connell on guitar) and logger bandmates Buddy (John Millard on banjo) and Jessie (Raha Javanfar on violin) welcome us to the town of Somewhere, where everyone likes to say their name and tell you all about themselves. Only the quiet, introverted Rose (Hailey Gill) just can’t seem to say her name, no matter how hard she tries, or how much encouragement she gets from her outgoing BFF Willie (Peter Fernandes) and faithful dog Love (Jonathan Ellul). Rose is a thinker who believes a name means a lot—and she has questions. And maybe the answers to those questions will help her sort out her predicament. After all, how can she say her name when she doesn’t know who, what, where, when or why she is? Mocked by classmates who view her as a weirdo, but determined to learn, she asks her teacher Miss Crisp (Sabryn Rock), who encourages her to try something new.
Rose takes this advice to heart and chooses a different direction, trying on a new, wild personality in the process—a decision that puts her friendship with Willie in jeopardy and further isolates her from her community. Then, inspired by the idea of getting a new perspective from the local mountain top, she sets off alone to climb it to see if she can find her answers there—and ultimately, the voice to say her name.
A tale of navigating life’s contradictions and weirdness, Rose is about love, acceptance and being true to yourself—and the resilience, determination, faith and hope required in the search for the answers to life’s questions. Even if things don’t work out the way you’d hoped or expected, the journey’s the thing. And, oh the places you’ll go, within and without yourself, when you step out of your comfort zone and try something new—all while recognizing and respecting your limits.
Gillis shines as our young hero Rose, giving an engaging, thoughtful and vulnerable performance as the not so little girl on a big mission. Shy, awkward and pensive, Rose longs to say her name and is driven to crazy lengths to find it within herself to do so. Gillis’s performance resonates in a deep, honest way; we’ve all felt lost and out of step with our lives at times—and identity is an ongoing evolution as we continue to explore our talents, desires and boundaries. Fernandes is an energetic treat as the confident extrovert Willie; the perfect match to the quiet Rose, Willie enjoys life’s simpler pleasures—but even he finds himself starting to ask questions. Ellul makes an adorably sweet and goofy canine pal with the loyal Love; struggling to be heard himself, even Love manages to push past his communication boundaries.
This multimedia, multidisciplinary musical features a multi-talented, multi-tasking ensemble, most of whom play several roles; not previously mentioned are Troy Adams, Michelle Bouey, Alana Bridgewater, Oliver Dennis and Raquel Duffy. Stand-outs include Bridgewater’s fierce Tina Turner-esque turn as the Lion Woman, in a powerhouse performance executed with style and impressive vocal chops. Grown-ups of a certain age will recognize Dennis and Duffy’s hilarious nod to Body Break as Trevor and Beth the Gym Buffs; and Dennis brings rock star charisma and presence as Billie the Lion. Rock gives us an endearing, comic performance as Miss Crisp, the patient, put-upon, high strung teacher.
The music makes a joyful noise—inspired by blue grass, folk, gospel, rock and traditional musical theatre—and features a tight onstage band in addition to the three musician loggers: Scott Hunter on bass, James Smith on keys and Adam Warner on drums. The songs will have your heart singing and get you on your feet as you cheer for Rose along her journey. Visually spectacular and sporting a vibrant palette, Lorenzo Savoini’s imaginative and practical set, lighting and projection design, and Alexandra Lord’s playful costumes, add to the magic.
Truly a musical for all ages, Rose has something for everyone—and, like the Lion Woman, you may even see yourself in our young hero. A name really does mean a lot. Say yours loud and proud!
Rose continues at the Young Centre until February 24; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.
Do you have any Indo-Caribbean friends? Do you want one? Jivesh (Jiv) Parasram will be that friend. Canadian-born with Indo-Trinidadian heritage, Jiv’s short piece about birthing a cow, coupled with experiences of growing up in Nova Scotia, and connections with family in Trinidad and Hinduism, evolved with the assistance of dramaturg Graham Isador into Take d Milk, Nah? The title is Jiv’s impression of a Trinidadian cow; cow’s don’t “moo” so much as they “nah.” Also, cows are awesome (and we’re greeted by one outside TPM).
Beginning with a hilarious prologue that introduces the show as an identity play, Jiv is as much self-deprecating as poking fun at the solo show experience. And he nails it when he points out that identity plays are an especially Canadian thing. Part stand-up, part storyteller, part teacher, Jiv weaves cultural and family history with ritual, Hindu stories and personal anecdotes—and even a trip into his mind—gently schooling us along the way with patience and good-humour.
Like when he talks about the impacts of colonialism and imperialism on occupied and/or enslaved peoples. When slavery becomes indentured servitude, and communities of former slaves are regarded with suspicion and fear of an uprising, an already oppressed people become further separated from their loved ones and even their identities. Scattered into the marginalized edges of society, how do they live with others, often in a new world far from home, and not lose their own culture?
Growing up in the East Coast of Canada, neither black nor white, and the only member of his family not born in Trinidad, Jiv relates his personal struggles in the search for identity. The birthing of the cow back in Trinidad becomes an important symbol of Indo-Trinidadian cultural identity for him—and this story is full of excitement, edge-of-your-seat veterinary drama and hilarious procedural descriptions. He also relates the personal impact of 9-11; the increase in racist remarks and treatment when he was assumed to be Muslim and therefore a terrorist. And how this led him to embrace Hinduism, thus distancing himself from ‘those bad brown people’—and stung by his response to save himself when Muslims became the target of increased oppression.
Jiv doesn’t want to start an oppression pissing contest or point fingers of blame; well-aware that mainstream education tends to leave out or gloss over the history and lived experiences of people of colour (POC), and that some white folks haven’t had the opportunity to befriend a person of colour, he’s happy to school us. And he delivers some harsh truths with a spoonful of sugar—all while recognizing his own privilege as a straight, cisgender male with a microphone. But, then, this can get exhausting—for anyone who identifies as POC. The extra time and effort spent providing basic background information of cultural history and lived experience isn’t something that people who enjoy white privilege have to do. And important, nuanced and deeper conversations may have to be delayed or put aside in the process.
Hilariously entertaining and insightful, Jiv is a sharp and engaging storyteller. Playful and candid as he chats with us—including some gentle, fun audience participation—he is respectful and inclusive, even when pointing out our differences. Because, after all, as he aptly points out, identity is an illusion—and we are all the same.
Informative and uplifting, Jiv’s show may inspire you to learn more, or check your way of thinking about and treating those who aren’t like you. And you may wind up leaving the theatre asking yourself how you hold privilege, and if/how you are marginalized.
Discovering and unpacking the intersectionality of identity and marginalization through storytelling and ritual in the entertaining, candid, mindful Take d Milk, Nah?
Take d Milk, Nah? continues in the TPM Backspace until April 22; get advance tickets online or by calling the TPM box office at: 416-504-7529. Advance booking strongly recommended.
The run includes a Relaxed Performance on Saturday April 14, 2018 at 2pm; an ASL Performance on Friday April 20, 2018 at 7:30pm; and an Audio Described Performance on Saturday April 21, 2018 at 2pm.