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.

 

Fire & water in magical, sensuous & moving She Mami Wata & The Pussy WitchHunt

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d’bi.young anitafrika (Nicki) & Amina Alfred (the DJ) in She Mami Wata & The Pussy WitchHunt – photos by Dee Kofri

d’bi.young anitafrika’s epic exploration of the Black diaspora, activism, divinity and sexuality in The Orisha Trilogy – starting with Esu Crossing the Middle Passage – continues with The Watah Theatre’s production of She Mami Wata and The Pussy WitchHunt: The Orisha Trilogy Part 2. Directed by Blakka Ellis, assisted by Wendy Olunike Adeliyi, with choreography by Ravyn Wngz and Lady Kori, and music direction/composition and live music/vocals by Amina Alfred, She Mami Wata is currently running in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Backspace.

Moving forward from the past in Esu and into the present, She Mami Wata takes us to modern-day Jamaica, from a small-town church congregation to a womxn’s* dancehall in Kingston. From recent past to present day, we see the parallel journeys of four friends, from childhood games and sexual exploration through their evolution into adulthood, where they come to live their truth or repress it.

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d’bi.young anitafrika as Pastor M in She Mami Wata & The Pussy WitchHunt

We see the opposing spiritual forces at work in this small town: Pastor M, who preaches the old-time religion long entrenched by colonialism; and Mother Tersa – who some would call “witch,” “healer,” “shaman” – who teaches the old ways of ancient African spiritual tradition. While Pastor M rails from his pulpit and in the aisles on the Old Testament creation story, Mother T gathers the children around her to tell them the story of Mami Wata (Mother Water), the name given to the womxn water spirits, who live in the water and embody its diverse and complex qualities: the cradle and giver of life, and bringer of storms, floods and tidal waves. Energetic and magnetic, Pastor M’s words spit fire and brimstone, and his special sermon is targeted against the LGBTQ community, as he preaches “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, or Sharon and Eve.”

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d’bi.young anitafrika as Mother Tersa in She Mami Wata & The Pussy WitchHunt

Meanwhile, at The Pussy WitchHunt, the Kingston dancehall, Nicki dances; moving like water, her sensual undulations ripple out through the appreciative and vocal crowd. Here, she speaks against the terrible history of Jamaica’s buggery laws and hate crimes against the LGBTQ community – more leftover colonialism – and fosters love, ownership and empowerment over one’s body and sexuality, especially for womxn. The Pussy WitchHunt is the last queer-friendly dancehall left after the men’s spaces were burnt to the ground, and it is now a safe haven for all womxn-identifying people, including one of Nicki’s childhood friends, who is now a drag queen. To Pastor M, we are “congregation,” while to Nicki, we are “pussy witches” – each takes us in, accepting us into their respective flocks.

As the story of the four friends progresses, so too does the dynamic of innocence, sexual awakening, homophobia and betrayal. Love and friendship turn to revulsion and shame, and Nicki is forced to flee to her aunt’s in Kingston or suffer the terrible consequences of being outed by Michael. She invites Kizzy to go with her, and Michael has secrets of his own to keep, revealing a facet of the double standard between men and womxn, and the denial that turns him into the man we see throughout the play.

anitafrika, along with long-time friend and colleague Alfred, is the mistress of storytelling; charismatic, spellbinding and sensuous, she engages our senses and our minds, playing multiple characters, and incorporating song, dance and spoken word as she weaves ancient mythology and Christian Bible stories with politics, law and activism. There is no separation between the so-called “divine” and “profane” here – all is divine. The human body, sexuality and the freedom to express these aspects of our humanity are all divine, with special props and appreciation for womxn’s bodies, which continue to be objectified, abused, owned and repressed by men, law, religion and society. The two performers have incredible chemistry, as anitafrika deftly shifts between characters and locales, and Alfred acts a one-womxn chorus, band and DJ booth. The resulting storytelling is playful, dynamic, thought-provoking, sexy and gut-wrenching.

The packed house enthusiastically played along, interacting with the performers – no fourth wall here – as Pastor M works the crowd to praise God and condemn gays, Nicki goes forth in search of a lap dance patron, and the DJ tosses “treats” (panties, bra, scarves) to an appreciative crowd.

The Watah Theatre has a tradition of post-show talkbacks, creating an open and safe space for the audience to ask questions, and discuss and share experiences. anitafrika introduced and thanked the production and creative teams; and she and Alfred praised the audience, expressing appreciation for their participation and engagement, which fuelled the already high-energy performances last night. Summarizing the three parts of The Orisha Trilogy, anitafrika described Part 1 as being rooted in the past, Part 2 in the present and Part 3 in the future; Part 3 will be a post-nuclear accident dub opera, to be performed during this year’s SummerWorks (Aug 4-14). Esu crossing the Middle Passage has been made into a video, and there are soundtracks in the works for each part of the trilogy, along with published versions of anitafrika’s work. The most moving moment was an audience member’s sharing of a personal experience, triggered by seeing She Mami Wata, but also putting her on the road to healing the trauma.

With shouts to the design team for their beautiful, evocative work on this production: Jenna McCutchen (set/costumes), Sharmylae Taffe Fletcher (lighting) and Waleed Abdulhamid (sound).

Fire and water in magical, sensuous and moving She Mami Wata and The Pussy WitchHunt.

She Mami Wata and The Pussy WitchHunt continues in the in the TPM Backspace till May 22; it’s an intimate space and a truly compelling show, so get your tix in advance.

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