A lesser known perspective of WWI in the compelling, eye-opening, thought-provoking Gods Like Us

Zazu Oke & Vince Deiulis. Set construction by Erica Causi. Lighting design by Wes Babcock. Photo by Kelsi Dewhurst.

 

Theatre Nidãna challenges what we think we know about WWI as it commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice of the First World War, giving us a little known perspective with the world premiere of Gods Like Us. An allegory that incorporates a traditional Nigerian lullaby and storytelling, and original music (composed by Nathan Radke and played by Mark Whale), Gods Like Us was devised by Zazu Oke and Vince Deiulis, who both perform in this compelling, eye-opening and thought-provoking two-hander; opening last night in the Factory Theatre Studio.

It’s November 1917, and a Canadian Recruiter (Vince Deiulis) approaches a Nigerian yam Farmer (Zazu Oke) in hopes of convincing him to join the Allied forces in their campaign to push back the Germans’ advance in East Africa. Taking a sales pitch angle on the ask, the Recruiter offers money, promising the Farmer increased status and respect within the village—and the ultimate advanced status of being “like us” (white men).

However, the British army—and by extension the Recruiter—have erred on gauging their audience. Assuming they’d be addressing uneducated, simple-minded African villagers who know nothing of the outside world, the Recruiter is faced with an intelligent, socially aware man who has personal, direct knowledge of the actual “opportunity” he’s being offered. Black men are not taken on as soldiers, but as carriers; and being denied a weapon, how are they to defend themselves? And the enhanced status pitch is inaccurate at best and at worst a lie.

The Farmer tells the Recruiter the story of the Tortoise and the Birds; the Birds are tricked by the Tortoise’s sweet words into helping him, only to find themselves cheated out of their promised reward. Instead of being helpless victims of a swindle, the Birds plot and get their revenge on the Tortoise—forever marking him as a crooked creature. While the Recruiter is charmed by the tale, he clearly doesn’t get the connection to their current circumstance.

As the Recruiter struggles to control his soldier’s heart (PTSD) episodes, the Farmer grapples with his anger at the sheer nerve and hypocrisy of his request. A British protectorate, the colonization of Nigeria has come at great, and tragic, personal and economic cost to its people. The Farmer has lost his family; and the farm is hanging by a thread as he tries to scrape by, selling his produce at lower prices to the British compared to what he could earn from his former German customers. Why should the Farmer fight for those who’ve done nothing but take from him and his people? And when the tone of the debate shifts from a battle of wits to playful wager to enraged face-off, the Farmer finds himself facing a moral choice: Does he use the power at his disposal to take revenge or does he let it go?

Riveting performances from Deiulis and Oke in this intimate tale of war, colonialism and race relations; the two-hander dynamic serving as a microcosm of the larger picture. Deiulis leaves us some room for empathizing with the Recruiter, who is under orders and navigating PTSD; but our sympathy for him only goes so far. Avoiding a sleazy, snake oil salesman approach, the Recruiter uses more friendly, insidious means to get the “natives” to sign on. Toeing the company line in his promise of white, god-like status, the Recruiter is entirely clueless to the fact that he’s adding serious insult to mortal injury. Oke is both impressive and heartbreaking as the Farmer. In deep mourning for the loss of his family and struggling to keep the farm—and himself—alive, the Farmer is patient and hospitable with the Recruiter; but his civility is tested when the Recruiter keeps pushing the Allies’ agenda, bringing the Farmer’s painful history of oppression and loss to the surface, and forcing him to push back.

Lesser known stories like this one need to be told. One has to wonder, had there been any attempt at reconciliation and reparation—and approached as a connection of equals and true partners—maybe prospective Nigerian recruits would have had a real reason to risk their lives in this war. But this observation is, of course, made through a 2018 lens. And while we honour those who served, we must also acknowledge and appreciate those who were unable to serve, or whose service was minimized, or coaxed or coerced with bait and switch methods, due to the colour of their skin.

Gods Like Us continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until November 17; advance tickets available online, or by calling 416-504-9971 or visiting the box office (125 Bathurst Street, Adelaide Street Entrance).

In the meantime, check out Oke and Deiulis’s Stageworthy Podcast interview with host Phil Rickaby.

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Love & games in Dauntless City Theatre’s delightful, immersive, gender-bending adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing

Kate Werneburg & Chanakya Mukherjee. Photo and design by Dahlia Katz.

 

Dauntless City Theatre’s Bard in Berczy brings us a delightful, immersive, gender-bending adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Adapted and directed by Eric Benson, Much Ado opened last night in Toronto’s Berczy Park (in St. Lawrence Market, with the cool dog-themed fountain).

We’re invited to gather near the Dauntless City sign (on the east side of the fountain) as the stage is set for this tale of love, games, jealousy and schemes. The ukulele-playing Balthazar (Holly Wyder) is our guide throughout this tale, as she leads us around the park to witness the various scenes unfold.

Returning home from war, Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon (Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks), her sister Don John (Melanie Leon), and officers Benedick (Kate Werneburg) and Claudio (Ira Henderson) stop for some R&R at the home of Leonato, Governor of Messina (Andrew Joseph Richardson) and his wife Innogen (Andrea Irwin). From the get-go, it’s clear that Claudio is smitten with their hosts’ son Hero (Chase Winnicky); and, as evidenced by their edgy, wit-filled banter, Benedick definitely has history with Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Chanakya Mukherjee). Their mutual love professed, Claudio and Hero decide to marry, and the vacation gathering goes into wedding planning mode.

Emboldened by the love in the air, the Prince and her hosts hatch a plan to bring the stubborn Benedick and scornful Beatrice into a love match. Meanwhile, jealous of her sister’s station and affection for Claudio, Don John seeks a way to cause mischief and bring chaos to the upcoming nuptials. Her follower Borachio (Wilex Ly) concocts a plan to disgrace Hero, using his lover Margaret (Jordan Shore), in sight of Don Pedro and Claudio to make them think Hero was with him the night before the wedding. Chaos ensues, the wedding is abruptly called off at the altar—and the accidental apprehension of one of the culprits by the local constabulary, led by the bumbling Head Officer of the Watch Dogberry (Andrea Lyons) and her partner Verges (Erin Eldershaw), could make all the difference between tragedy and a happy ending.

This abridged adaptation (90 minutes, no intermission) brings the audience into the action as we follow the story scene by scene around the fountain, bridged by snatches of music (supplied by Wyder, with music direction by David Kingsmill) that call back to the action. The fact that most of the roles have been gender reversed in casting (except for Leonato, Innogen, Claudio and Borachio)—creating two same-sex male couples—offers a fresh, new look at familiar characters. And Leonato’s wife Innogen, who has no lines in the original script, has dialogue in this version—largely borrowed from Leonato and the Friar; this puts her in a much more active position in the problem-solving plans of her household.

Big shouts to the ensemble for a thoroughly enjoyable, intimate experience of this Shakespeare favourite. Werneburg and Mukherjee have great chemistry as Benedick and Beatrice, shifting from prideful, witty verbal combatants to love-struck, stammering romantic prospects. The stubborn scorn of romance melts away as their friends’ well-meaning prank blooms into the realization that they really do love each other. And Winnicky and Henderson are adorably sweet and bashful as the young lovers Hero and Claudio. The gender reversed casting and same-sex couples make for some interesting insights into societal assumptions of male and female behaviour. Women can be tough soldiers who scoff at romance, men can be empathetic and show their feelings, and love is love no matter what the equation.

Other stand-outs include Leon’s mean-spirited, sullen Don John. Seething with jealousy over that which she lacks, Don John does what she wants and consequences be damned—but finds her cruel trickery offering limited mirth and sport. And Lyons and Eldershaw bring on the comic relief big time as the hilarious, goofball leaders of the Watch—combining physical comedy with the malapropism-filled text to great effect and LOLs.

Much Ado About Nothing continues at Berczy Park until Aug 26, with performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 7:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday afternoons at 1:00 p.m. Admission is PWYC; gather around the Dauntless City sign and be prepared to move around the space to keep up with the action.

You can keep up with Dauntless City Theatre on Twitter and Facebook. In the meantime, check out Phil Rickaby’s great interview with Benson, Werneburg and Chanakya on Stageworthy Podcast.

Love, family, forgiveness & legacy—falling in love with Kim’s Convenience over & over again

Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann: Jean Yoon & Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

Everybody loves Appa. When Paul Sun-Hyung Lee made his entrance as the Kim patriarch (marking his 423rd performance in the role) for Soulpepper Theatre’s remount of Ins Choi’s Kim’s Convenience, the packed house in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre erupted into applause.

I first fell in love with Kim’s Convenience during its sold-out run in the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival; arriving super early at the Bathurst Street Theatre (now the Randolph Academy) box office with my 10-play pass in hand (this was before my media accreditation). Then I had the pleasure of seeing Soulpepper’s production in May 2012 and fell in love all over again. I’m also a huge fan of the Canadian Screen Award-nominated TV series on CBC. So I was very happy when I, along with my friend Lizzie (who’d also seen it onstage twice before), had the opportunity to see it again last night.

Directed by Weyni Mengesha, Kim’s Convenience takes us along a day in the life of a mom and pop variety store in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood. For those familiar with the TV show, there really is a Kim’s Convenience, located at Queen/Sherbourne—and the exterior of the store is used in the show. Unlike the TV series, however, the play is set around 10 years later, with Janet (Rosie Simon) and Jung (Richard Lee)* now in their early 30s. And Appa, who is nearing retirement, starts his day receiving an offer from a local real estate-connected friend Mr. Lee (Ronnie Rowe Jr.) to buy the store; and finds himself considering the future—especially in the face of urban development and neighbourhood gentrification. He and Umma (Jean Yoon) have a big decision to make. Do they sell? And, if they don’t sell, who will take over the store? For Appa, Kim’s Convenience is his story, his legacy.

Janet, still living at home and working as a professional photographer, has no interest in pursuing the family business. And her older brother Jung hasn’t been seen or heard from since he left home at 16—a point that comes up when a police officer named Alex (Rowe) arrives at the store to answer a 911 call Janet made at Appa’s insistence over an illegally parked Japanese-made car. Alex was a friend of Jung’s when they were kids, and they’d since lost touch; and this chance reunion with the Kim family paves the way for an opportunity for Janet, who used to follow him and Jung around like a puppy when they were kids.

Generational clashes of the immigrant parents vs. first generation Canadian children variety emerge. Appa, who was a teacher back in Korea, opened the store and worked seven days a week with no vacations in order to give his family a better life in Canada. Appa’s and Umma’s sacrifices and struggles were all for their children, and things didn’t turn out how they’d hoped. Janet is 30, still single and working in a job that Appa finds questionable. And their hopes for their son were destroyed when an altercation between Appa and Jung turned violent, and Jung left home and never came back. Appa has a temper, evidenced in a fight between him and Janet over what is owed to whom after years of service at the store.

Umma has secretly been staying in touch with Jung, who is still working at a car rental place—a job he hates—and now the father of a two-month-old boy. The two have a poignant and revealing meeting at their local Korean church, where the family sang together at church events; Jung alerting his presence by joining his mother in a beautiful Korean duet. It’s the last downtown Korean church, and it’s closing after the land was sold to developers; the remaining churches are all now in the suburbs. It’s a time of change and upheaval, for the family and the neighbourhood—and everyone has some choices to make about the future. And, in the end, Appa realizes that his story isn’t about the store—it’s about his children.

Such beautiful, solid work from the cast. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee has been the only Appa, performing throughout multiple remounts, Canada-wide tours and the TV series; the role was made for him and fits him like a glove. I can’t picture anyone else playing Appa. An outspoken, opinionated man possessing of a sharp mind and an eye for detail, Appa is a keen observer of human nature, with a head full of facts about Korean history and a mouth full of words of condemnation for Japan. Despite his quick temper and abrupt manner, he’s a good man with a cheeky sense of humour; and concerned about the security of his family and community. Yoon, who has been Umma to his Appa on stage and on the small screen, is a perfect match and complement as family matriarch Mrs. Kim. A gentle and devout soul, with the patience of a saint, Umma works behind the scenes of her family life to keep her family safe—even if secretly and from afar, as in the case with Jung.

Simon gives a feisty, energetic performance as Janet, who has the wit to hold her own in mercurial, philosophical—often hilarious—banter with Appa. An independent young woman who can hold her own, she pushes back when her work, which she loves, gets called into question. Richard Lee does a great job mining Jung’s layers of conflict; restless, adrift and now a father himself, regret and longing come to the surface. Like his father, he too must consider the future—for himself and his young family.

Rowe does an awesome job playing four very different characters: store customers Rich (who gets schooled on the difference between ginseng and insam) and Jamaican Mike (who gets schooled on “steal”); the affable and empathetic Mr. Lee; and Alex the cop, who finds himself looking at Janet differently now that they’re both grown up (and gets schooled in courting in a hysterically unusual way by Appa).

It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s genuine. And even though it’s about a Korean Canadian family living in Toronto, the universal themes of love, family, forgiveness and legacy resonate no matter who you are or where you come from. And the standing ovation Kim’s Convenience got last night spoke volumes about the love audiences have for the show.

Kim’s Convenience continues the Michael Young Theatre in the Young Centre; booking in advance is strongly recommended. Get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.

Check out the 2017 production trailer:

And while you’re at it, check out Phil Rickaby’s interview with actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee on Stageworthy Podcast.

Up next: Soulpepper will be taking Kim’s Convenience to New York City’s 42nd Street in July.

*Ins Choi will be playing Jung for select performances: Feb 23 at 8pm, Feb 24 at 8pm, and Feb 25 at 2pm and 8pm.

Stageworthy Podcast interview

Shortly before the holiday, I sat on the other side of the interview table with Phil Rickaby of Stageworthy Podcast as we chatted about theatre and the life with more cowbell blog. Thanks, Phil – I had a blast!

The interview is about an hour long; give it a listen here.

Photo by Lisa MacIntosh, taken outside Alumnae Theatre.