Ancestors calling on a hero’s journey through fear to true self in the engaging, powerful 11:11

Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Set design by d’bi.young anitafrika. Costume design by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Brett Haynes.

 

A.V.O. Collective brings the world premiere of its engaging, powerful production of 11:11, presented as part of Why Not Theatre’s RISER Project 2019, to the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage. Written/performed by trans-identified artist Samson Bonkeabantu Brown and dramaturged/directed by d’bi.young anitafrika, 11:11 is a bio-mythical monodrama journey, stretching across time, space, and the realms of life and afterlife, as our hero connects with his Portuguese and South African ancestors, and moves through fear to become the man he was meant to be.

In a one-person show that encompasses both broad and immediate personal history, Brown draws out his tale as he gradually constructs a pattern on the floor with white stones. Incorporating storytelling, history, movement, ritual, language and music, he shape shifts in and out of a cast of characters that include the precocious, curious seven-year-old girl he once was and the joyful, prophesying, matter-of-fact South African ancestor he’s about to meet.

Becoming a bridge between past and present, female and male, he connects with the spirit world through dreams and visions—and gradually the messages become clear as the little girl who experiences strange dreams and headaches, and is shunned in the schoolyard, grows up and comes to learn that there’s nothing medically wrong with her. She is a receiver, a prophecy made flesh, a shape shifter.

In a world where white men divided up a continent they claimed as their own, and forced their alphabet onto environment-based African dialects—and, later, Western medicine onto African descendants—how does our hero reconcile his connections to both the colonized and the colonizer? And, through the pain of the struggle for true identity, and the ancestral pain of apartheid and displacement, he comes to realize the complex—and even contradictory—aspects of identity and experience that have combined to create him.

1111 by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown (featuring Samson Bonkeabantu Brown) photo by Brett Haynes #2
Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Set design by d’bi.young anitafrika. Costume design by Samson Bonkeabantu Brown. Lighting design by André du Toit. Photo by Brett Haynes.

Brown, who recently wrote for/performed in the RARE Theatre/Soulpepper production Welcome to my Underworld, is a compelling and entertaining storyteller. Engaging, bold, unashamed and vulnerable, he invites us along on his journey—part autobiography, part personal mythology, part history lesson, part supernatural revelation—as he connects with his roots and finds his true rhythm. From the child-like playfulness of a little girl to the wry-witted wisdom of an elder, the fear, confusion, joy and humour Brown expresses throughout resonate in a deeply profound, intimate way. And I know I wasn’t the only one in tears at the end.

11:11 continues in the Incubator at the Theatre Centre until June 1, with performances on:

Tuesday, May 28 – 6:00PM
Wednesday, May 29 – 9:00PM
Thursday, May 30 – 6:00PM
Friday, May 31 – 9:00PM
Saturday, June 1 – 6:00PM

Tickets available online, in person at the box office, or by calling 416-538-0988.

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A world in a tea room in the powerful, sharply funny, deeply moving “Master Harold” …and the Boys

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James Daly & André Sills, with Allan Louis in the background, in “Master Harold” …and the Boys – photo by Harold Akin

Obsidian Theatre, in association with the Shaw Festival, brought its production of Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold” …and the Boys to Toronto, opening last night at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio theatre.

Directed by Philip Akin, and inspired by Fugard’s childhood relationships with the black employees of his mother’s tea room, “Master Harold” …and the Boys is set in 1950s South Africa, in St. George’s Park Tea Room. It is here that young Hally (James Daly) spends most of his after-school hours, doing homework and hanging out with tea room employees Sam (André Sills) and Willie (Allan Louis). The three have an easy-going, friendly relationship, particularly Hally and Sam; full of witty banter, good-natured teasing and philosophical debates on everything from men of magnitude and social reform, to education and art, to the global vision gleaned from the local black community ballroom dance competition. Darkening Hally’s mood is the possibility that his crippled, alcoholic father will be returning home from hospital – a prospect that pricks resentment over having to help his mother be nurse maid, and keep an eye on the household and tea room cash.

Forced into adult responsibilities early in his life, and now the de facto man of the house, Hally is coming of age during apartheid; and as the action progresses, we see him waver between familiar pal “Hally” and stern boss “Master Harold.” Ironically, Hally – the privileged one in the room – is the most cynical and pessimistic about the world, seeing only ugliness. Meanwhile, Sam and Willie see beauty and possibility; their enjoyment of ballroom dancing a metaphor for harmony. Sam and Willie have hope, while Hally has none. Perhaps Hally has only fear. As the discussion between Hally and Sam becomes more heated, things are said that cannot be unsaid.

Beautifully nuanced, committed performances from the cast. Louis brings a lovable, child-like sense of joy to Willie, who is excited to be competing in the upcoming ballroom dance competition and determined to master the quick step. A simple man of the old school, Willie sees nothing wrong with laying a beating on his girl Hilda when she steps out of line – but at least he’s smart enough to take Sam’s advice to stop it. Sills gives Sam a quiet strength and dignity, combined with a sharp sense of humour. Pragmatic, but forward-thinking, Sam has a quick mind and a precise memory – and he genuinely cares for Hally, even to the point of being an unexpected father figure. Daly plays nicely on the brink of manhood as Hally; with a Holden Caulfield edge about him, Hally is self-involved, smart and arrogant. Playful and familiar at first with his parents’ employees, hints of a little dictator begin to show as he feels increasingly stressed out over his family situation – and during his tantrums, he takes it out on Sam and Willie. In the end, the boy who hadn’t noticed the Whites Only sign on the park bench must decide if he wants to be a man who sits on that bench or walks away from it. And while some things cannot be unsaid, they can perhaps become a source of learning and growth.

The tea room serves as a microcosm of the larger world it inhabits. And though the play takes place in another time and place, it has much to teach us today about everyday and systemic racism, and the subtle and blatant ways in which it creates barriers based on assumptions, fear and ignorance. Go see this production.

With shouts to the creative team for bringing this world to life – and creating a space that’s not only practical for the purposes of the play, but has an inviting aesthetic that makes you want to sit down for a snack: Peter Hartwell (set and costumes), Kevin Lamotte and Chris Malkowski (lighting), Corey Macfadyen (sound) and Valerie Moore (dance sequence).

A world in a tea room in the powerful, sharply funny, deeply moving “Master Harold” …and the Boys.

“Master Harold” …and the Boys continues at the Toronto Centre for the Arts until October 23. You can get advance tickets online; strongly recommended, given last night’s standing ovation.