REVIEWS FOR SHE SAID/HE SAID
Produced by the Black Theatre Workshop, the play provides a modern look not only at relationships and urban dating culture, but at black identity and representation in Canada.
As the main characters, He and She, try to navigate the minefield of contemporary dating, they are unable to separate their own anxieties about race and intimacy from their romantic aspirations. Mariah Inger, who plays She, is captivating to watch and brings forth a wealth of emotion and vulnerability throughout the show. In comparison, Christian Paul as the leading man opposite tends to fade into the background, unable to sustain the audience’s attention to the same degree.
On top of a strong script, which often uses jumps in time and character asides to progress the action along, the play benefits tremendously from its use of spoken word. Woods deserves credit for the composition and elegance with which she seamlessly integrates these moments into the regular dialogue and fabric of the show. The instances of lyrical monologue provide a refreshing change of pace from its overall reliance on stationary dialogue.
The play falters where it tries to further diversify its format using original music and song. The songwriting feels amateur and unpolished, relying on overly simplistic and clichéd rhyme schemes. Despite their best efforts, the actors appeared to be noticeably uncomfortable and almost reluctant onstage during these musical interludes. While this may be a case of press preview jitters, the songs ultimately proved distracting to the whole arc of the show as the thread of the narrative would be repeatedly interrupted.
The styling of the show, presented at the Montreal Arts Interculturels Centre, was interesting and thoughtful, using mirrored panels to redirect light in the intimate semi-round space.
On the whole, the play is humorous and engaging, with Inger ‘s acting performance topping the list of reasons to go and see it. Woods’ script poses relevant and honest questions about the experience of black men and women in the modern dating landscape without providing any easy answers or fairytale endings.
The Montreal Gazette
Article by Jim Burke
Male-female relations of a less obviously titillating kind fuel Anne-Marie Woods’s two-hander, She Said/He Said, which is being presented by Black Theatre Workshop at the MAI.
The ups-and-downs of a tentative love affair play out on an elongated dance floor made from a mosaic of mirrored surfaces. Woods’s script is a kind of mosaic too, with soulful songs, spoken word poetry and rap complementing more traditional dialogue. Despite an awkwardly performed opening duet – maybe they’re making more assured music together several days after opening night – performers Mariah Inger and Christian Paul make for a likeable and charismatic couple under Quincy Armorer’s direction.
Woods’s script has an easy, if overly meandering, charm too, as She and He wrestle, sometimes amusingly, sometimes with exasperated anger, with the problems besetting any new couple hoping to make a go of it. On top of this are the challenges of belonging to a visible minority and attempting to break free of the stereotypes laid on them by society, and sometimes by each other.
Is He too detached, too ready to walk away when things get tough, as his own father did with his family? Is She too clingy, as well as too prescriptive of how a black man should love (for instance, shunning romantic entanglements with white women)?
The loose, free-wheeling structure might have worked better as comedy and drama had the script contained more effective zingers or original insights. As it is, it wraps things up with a climactic confrontation which comes oddly out of left field. I don’t feel myself qualified to say whether the failure of black men to casually acknowledge black women as they pass them on the street raises memories of gender segregation under slavery. Possibly so: such devastating historical traumas can’t help but affect whole communities in unexpected ways. Woods, though, hasn’t yet found a way to make the case persuasive dramatically, leaving the piece, for all its occasional pleasures, feeling ultimately unsatisfying.
AT A GLANCE
She Said/He Said is at MAI, 3680 Jeanne-Mance St., to May 1. Tickets: $25; seniors and students: $20. Call 514-982-3386 or visit M-a-i.qc.ca
Conceived by playwright and composer Anne-Marie Woods and directed by Black Theatre Workshop Artistic Director Quincy Armorer, SHE SAID/HE SAID makes its world premiere at the M.A.I. in a comedic and dramatic story of love, dating, and relationships told from the perspective of the modern African Canadian.
When vulnerability is equated with weakness and societal stereotypes confine us to a conforming mold, how can intimacy and authentic self-expression be manifested and received without rejection, judgement, and discrimination? In the cunning SHE SAID/HE SAID, the dialogue is driven by the desire to explore and expose how gender, ethnicity, and culture affect our perceptions of self and our relationship dynamics with those that cross our paths.
SHE (portrayed by the brassy Mariah Inger), recently arrived in Toronto, is a self-proclaimed strong, independent career woman striving to be seen, heard, and respected. HE (played by a mesmerizing Christian Paul) is a single parent struggling in his search for identity, security, and understanding. When their lives intersect, their commitment to make their courtship work is challenged by conflicting wishes to save face and pride in society and to fulfill an inmost need for connection. It’s a fight to bring down the cold, concrete walls of the urban jungle surrounding them – and, primarily, of the communication and emotional barriers they’ve built around themselves.
Woods, an award-winning multi-disciplinary artist, has infused this semi-autobiographical script with original music, monologue, and poetry to create a unique theatrical experience of spoken word. (While many of these rhythmically stylistic moments were immensely compelling, however, others were admittedly uncomfortable to sit though – most notably the musical numbers. The two leads are actors above singers, and it is their exceptional storytelling paired with a relevant script that keeps us thoroughly engaged. All merits given, however, for the creative risk.) Eric Mongerson’s lighting design is handsomely effective in creating a dynamic transition between scenes and performance mediums, with Elahe Marjovi’s set design also being triumphant in its use of mirrored, reflecting panels.
Providing a crisp and clear look at the social issues of race and traditional gender roles in the context of family and romantic relationships, this poignant play eloquently fulfills Black Theatre Workshop‘s mandate of developing and providing a voice for Canadian artists of visible minorities. In exploring the adversities faced by Black men and women in a world of labels, stereotypes, and social expectations, however, the search for meaning, truth, and compassion is all but exclusive to a singular segregated community. In SHE SAID/HE SAID, the struggle is arguably universal; the story, potentially all too painfully relatable.
Don’t miss The Black Theatre Workshop’s moving production of She Said/He Said, which plays at the MAI, Montréal Arts Interculturels, 3680 Jeanne-Mance Street until May 1, 2016. Tickets are $23.50 – 28.59 and can be purchased online at http://m-a-i.qc.ca/en/ or by calling the MAI box office at (514) 982-3386.
Texte : Anne-Marie Woods. Mise en scène : Quincy Armorer. Une production du Black Theatre Workshop présentée à MAI – Montréal, arts interculturels jusqu’au 1er mai.
Ils se croisent, se toisent, se plaisent. Ils déroulent, pour l’autre comme pour nous, le fil de leurs amours déçues, lesquelles nourrissent leurs craintes actuelles. Cette fois-ci, ils aimeraient bien y croire, mais bon, c’est un peu toujours la même histoire.
Air connu que celui-là, chanté ici sans trop emprunter de méandres tortueux, dans l’explicitation limpide des sentiments, des enjeux et des métaphores. Dans She Said/He Said, nouvelle production du Black Theatre Workshop, la Torontoise d’adoption Anne-Marie Woods met des mots sur tout : les souvenirs, les espoirs, les déconvenues, les blocages. C’est une dissection sans détour, pas de deux entre une She et un He qui se livrent de manière tout à fait transparente.
Cette écriture proche de la chanson — il y en a d’ailleurs quelques-unes durant le spectacle — innerve en fait tout le texte, à l’exception de certains dialogues ; les monologues et récitatifs proches du slam ne laissent pas grand-chose dans l’ombre en ce qui concerne les états d’âme des membres du couple. Ce que le texte perd en mystère, il le gagne en rythmique. Les arrangements musicaux signés par Rob Denton se marient à l’aspect soul et r’n’b du phrasé.
On aura beau généraliser sur l’universalité des affres de l’amour, l’auteure souhaitait ici explorer les spécificités d’une certaine romance contrariée entre femme et homme noirs. Privés de noms, réduits en quelque sorte à des pronoms, les deux protagonistes sont à la fois des individus et des représentations un peu composites ; conscients de cette dualité, les premiers ne savent s’ils doivent embrasser ou rejeter leur identité seconde, plus symbolique.
Cette dimension de l’oeuvre, qui fait bien l’objet de certaines remarques ici et là, se déploie surtout vers la fin alors que le couple craque de toutes ses coutures sous des pressions internes, du moins en apparence. Il lui reproche son intransigeance, elle semble déplorer son manque d’engagement. La tyrannie de correspondre à un modèle, peu importe qui l’impose — soi, l’autre, la communauté, l’ensemble du corps social —, ou au contraire la farouche volonté de s’en défaire à tout prix finissent par avoir raison de l’intimité.
Dommage que cet aspect capital, terreau mortifère dont se nourrissent les racines de nombreux désarrois amoureux, soit expédié un peu rapidement lors de la finale.
Insistant longuement sur ce qui a précédé cette rencontre, Woods nous donne peu à voir l’étiolement du tissu affectif, l’effet quotidien de ces tensions.
Mariah Inger et Christian Paul injectent beaucoup de chaleur à ces figures féminine et masculine. Les deux interprètes naviguent avec aisance entre les niveaux de jeu et d’adresse au public, portant avec grâce les archétypes qu’ils représentent et les personnages qui tentent de s’en distinguer. Le contact direct avec le public qu’ils réussissent à établir représente d’autant plus un tour de force que la masse de spectateurs est divisée en deux, dans un rapport bifrontal. Cette décision du metteur en scène Quincy Armorer, outre le fait qu’elle exploite une configuration rarement vue à Montréal, arts interculturels (MAI), accentue un peu le côté démonstratif de l’ensemble.
Le hasard a voulu que j’assiste à She Said/He Said quelques jours après avoir vu Des arbres à La Licorne. Malgré leurs singularités respectives dans le ton et l’ambition, ce sont les similarités qui m’ont frappé : l’épuration scénographique, l’éclatement chronologique du récit, le travail serré et minutieux sur la livraison du texte, mais surtout le motif du couple se confrontant réellement à des questions existentielles et s’affrontant sur ces mêmes questions.
J’ai l’impression d’avoir assisté récemment à beaucoup de spectacles où le rapport amoureux contemporain était essentiellement caricaturé et dénoncé en tant qu’échange marchand, à n’en point douter en reflet à certaines tendances actuelles. Néanmoins, il fait bon de constater que des dramaturges en explorent aussi plus finement les réseaux émotionnels et philosophiques.
PERFORMANCE POETRY COMBINED WITH THEATRICAL DELIVERY
By Byron Toben
Anne-Marie Woods (aka Amani) in her own words, lets her “poetic rhapsodies” in words “bleed onto the page”.
Thus in the world premiere of her latest work, She Said/He Said, the attraction and arguments between the excellent actors, SHE (Mariah Inger) and HE (Christian Paul) as they try to define their relationships as a WE are punctuated by “spoken word” monologues to the beat of slow dance “back in the day” rhythms as well as more contemporary rap deliveries.
I prefer to categorize spoken word more, as our local star of the genre, Cat Kidd does, as performance poetry. Anyway, whatever you call it, I have followed it since Jack Kerouac read Poetry to Jazz on bongo drums and sax back in the 60s.
Here, the two pronoun stars are singles in their late 30s looking for “the one”. Although much is made of the fact that they are both black persons, the initial attractions and ultimate hesitancies are universal. Is she too picky, too bossy? Is he too non committal with a wandering eye? I particularly enjoyed his fantasizing himself as the black John Travolta from Saturday Night Fever with his moves and attitude.
The whole was presented by Black Theatre Workshop director Quincy Armorer on a mosaic floor of reflective glassy particles, enhanced by reflective material on the back walls of the opposite rows of seats in a corridor style configuration
Perhaps Men are really from Mars, Women from Venus. The problem of errant communication between couples despite initial attraction has long been reflective in other ways. The simplest in film was Tarzan’s reaction to her query “We have to define our relationship. What is it?” “Me Tarzan… You Jane”
And of course, Shaw’s quip that “The problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
She Said/He Said closes on Sunday, May 1 at the MAI, 3680 Jeanne-Mance, Montreal.
Tickets: 514-982-3386 or billetterie.m-a-i.qc.ca
She Said/He Said uses hip hop and spoken word to explore relationships and race
A new play that combines hip hop culture, music and spoken word performance explores the intersection of modern love and race. Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop will premiere She Said/He Said by Canadian playwright Anne-Marie Woods this week. Mariah Inger plays a single black woman who meets a man at a club and she thinks he’s her dream lover.
Christian Paul’s character is a sensitive, emotionally open young black man who feels his partner is more in love with her own pride than him.
It’s a love story that gets complicated when she realizes he’s still seeing his former girlfriend.
“I mean what woman hasn’t been there?” says Inger.
It’s a universal experience to discover the person you thought was your soul mate is not that into you. But Inger says it’s even more complicated when you’re black.
“You would assume they would be a lot more connected. But that’s not always the reality and that is a race thing, a culture thing, what we are still living today,” she says.
Christian Paul feels young black men suffer too as they try to develop their own identity independent of social pressures and media stereotypes.
“It’s how you build your own identity and how it comes from you and other people’s perception of you as well,” he says.
Both actors say the play has challenged them to get comfortable incorporating music and spoken word rhythms into their work but think those elements make the play a modern, accessible work.
The Black Theatre Workshop’s production of She Said/He Said by Anne-Marie Woods gets its world premiere this week at the MAI, Montréal Arts Interculturels, 3680 Jeanne-Mance Street. It runs from April 13 to May 1
Exploring love with wit and humour
Reviews of Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God
By Caroline Phillips on October 25, 2015 for the Ottawa Citizen
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In recognition of the play that just opened at the National Arts Centre, this week’s column shall be renamed The Adventures of a White Girl in Search of a Good Party.
My quest brought me to the NAC Fountain Room late Friday for a lively reception, complete with drumming, dancing and singing, to celebrate The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God and its arrival to the NAC. It’s a profoundly moving and beautifully told story that NAC English Theatre artistic director Jillian Keiley had longed to bring to the national stage.
“I just love this show so much,” she told everyone.
Her colleague, managing director Nathan Medd, led the enthusiastic crowd in a toast to the NAC’s co-production with Montreal-based Centaur Theatre Company and in association with Black Theatre Workshop. Its artistic director, Quincy Armorer, is also part of the main cast. “It’s the single most significant project I have ever worked on in my entire career,” he said at the podium.
Mingling in the large crowd were Canadian director and Governor General’s Award-winning playwright Djanet Sears and such veteran performing artists as Jackie Richardson and New Glasgow, N.S.-native Walter Borden, decked out in medals he’s received to recognize his contributions to arts and culture.
The large group of gifted performers, who sing, dance and chant throughout the play, created a joyous yet powerful moment when they fêted one of their castmates at the party with the chorus from Stevie Wonder’s Happy Birthday. It’s actually a tribute song about civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
By Connie Meng on October 27, 2015 for North Country Public Radio
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The English Theatre at the National Arts Centre (NAC) has opened their season with a production of “The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God,” written and directed by Djanet Sears. It’s the story of Rainey, a doctor, her husband Michael, a preacher, and her elderly father Ben. The play deals with Rainey’s inability to accept her daughter’s death and Ben’s attempts to uphold the town’s black history.
We who live near the United States/Canada border and go back and forth often tend to think of ourselves as pretty similar. However, there are sometimes striking differences in cross-border sensibilities. One example is Newfie humor—Americans just don’t get it. The subject matter of this play is another. Americans have been seeing plays about race relations and black history since the 1970s, for example August Wilson’s brilliant “Century Cycle,” ten plays that chart the African-American experience throughout the 20th century. There’s also Alvin Ailey’s iconic piece “Revelations,” choreographed in 1960. In “Adventures . . .,” the cast marches to protest graffiti on their church wall. In the U.S. Deep South, black churches are burned down. All this contributes to my viewpoint that “Adventures . . .” says nothing new.
That said, “Adventures . . .” is another example of problems with a playwright and co-composer directing their own work. The ensemble songs, although beautifully sung thanks to Music Director Andrew Craig, are all too long especially “The Angels Are Singing.” Although the choreography is well performed, Choreographer Vivine Scarlett was obviously very greatly influenced by Alvin Ailey and uses some of his actual steps from “Revelations.” When it takes until Act II to realize the ensembles’ waving arms in the pit are the river, (which become very distracting, by the way), and you don’t know they’re supposed to be ancestors without reading the program notes, something’s wrong.
Then there’s the casting, perhaps the most important part of the director’s job. Neither Lucinda Davis as Rainey nor Quincy Armorer as Michael show us the complexity of the characters or provoke empathy from us. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the play, the direction, or the actors. The cast standout is Walter Borden as Ben, by turns funny, touching, stubborn, and wise. Lili Franks as Ivy and Rudy Webb as Bert are also very good. Paul Rainville is just fine in five roles and also plays a couple of rather strange instruments.
Astrid Janson’s set and costumes are fine, but Jason Hand’s lighting is a bit murky and the unnecessary use of a star drop too much of a cliché. Peter Cerone’s sound is excellent especially the river water, but I could have done without the urination.
As for Ms. Sears’ staging, I found the Act II entrance through the house gimmicky. The penultimate scene of the ceremonial washing of the body made a wonderful and moving stage picture, but again went on so long I stopped caring. It would benefit the production for someone to do some judicious pruning, as it runs three hours with intermission. There are a lot of good elements in this production, but it has a ponderous and halting feeling. “Adventures . . .” never flows smoothly or quite comes together.
On a scale of one to five the NAC English Theatre/Centaur Theatre Company Co-production in association with Black Theatre Workshop gets three Royal Canadian Mounted Police. For North Country Public Radio I’m Connie Meng.
By Alan Hustak on September 27, 2015 for The Métropolitain
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The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God at the Centaur until October 18 is a riveting, highly theatrical excursion into the mysteries of life and death and the healing power of a faith community. At its core is the age old conundrum: How can a loving God allow bad things to happen to good people?
Djanet Sears, who wrote, developed and directs her own work engages us in a three hour fantasy of her making. Sears is a born story teller who has combined West African tradition with the fervor of an old time American gospel revival meeting to come up with an extravagant, vivid, and occasionally taxing, theatrical experience. The play explores the Black experience in Southern Ontario – present and future, and is rooted in the light of the past all the way back to the War of 1812, when Captain Runchy’s Company of Coloured Men fought for the British.
As the show opens, we learn that Rainey Baldwin-Jackson (Lucinda Davis) has lost her baby, and as a result has suspended her belief in God. She is in the middle of divorcing her husband, Michael (Quincy Amorer,) and to boot, Rainey’s free-spirit of a father, Abendingo, (Walter Borden) is on his last legs.
Abendingo is really the backbone of this production. He may be dying, but he hasn’t stopped living. Even as his daughter agonizes over her miserable lot in life, he leads a group of high-spirited Black community activists in a series of hilarious misadventures, stealing all the politically incorrect lawn jockeys and Aunt Jemima statues they can find in the neighbourhood. He has also head of a campaign to keep the 200 year old name of their town, Negro Creek from being erased from the map,
Set on a bare stage an impressive troupe of dancers choreographed by Vivine Scarlett are ethereal beings who serve as a counterpoint to the storyline and propel the narrative, In some cases they actually set the scene. Original music by Alexander Nunez enhances the mood and character.
The cast is headed by a masterful Maritime actor Walter Borden who shines as the dignified yet insouciant and determined family patriarch who is so busy preparing his own funeral he has no time to abandon his headstrong approach to life. Lucinda Davis is initially impressive as the heroine who pleads with her God to “talk to me, burn a bush, do something, say something.” But as the play progresses she becomes more restrained and never quite probes the depths of her despair. Quincy Amorer as Michael is quietly impressive as her bible thumping husband who tries to keep their marriage intact. Jackie Richardson, as a member of the geriatric gang, belts out an exhilarating defiant hymn when the church is desecrated which alone is worth the price of admission. Kudos to the rest of the principle players: Barbara Barnes-Hopkins, Lili Francks, and Rudy Webb.
A few of the scenes, especially near the end, stretch on too long. The script is light on theology, and real insight into Rainey’s redemption reduced to ambiguous platitudes. (“Its not that I don’t believe,” she exclaims at one point, “The problem is that I do.”) Some of the staginess needs to be edited, but that said, The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God is above all a rare sensory and soulful experience not to be missed.
By J. Kelly Nestruck on September 25, 2015 for The Globe and Mail
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When Abendigo gazes out over Negro Creek, you see it, too. You hear the water running, smell the nearby woods, and feel the sun’s yellow rays beating down on your face. And when the old man speaks about death, you feel as at peace with the circle of life as he does.
At 72, Walter Borden has truly grown into the role of Abendigo in Djanet Sears’s landmark comedy-drama The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God. Since the play’s first reading in 2001, the veteran Nova Scotian actor has played Abendigo – a retired judge in rural Ontario who organizes a museum heist.
But now that Borden is actually in his seventies, he is more steeped in the character than ever – and gives a performance so sensitive, so sensory, he tricks your body into feeling what he does. It’s wise and warm, leavened by a sense of mischief and physical fragility.
Adventures (for we have a limited word count), the play that launched Toronto’s black theatre company Obsidian Theatre in 2002 and later ran for five months thanks to Mirvish Productions, is getting a major revival in Montreal right now at the Centaur Theatre.
Indeed, Sears’ production – she directs again as she did for the premiere – is being described as the biggest in the venerable anglophone theatre company’s history. The cast of 22 is the largest ever seen on the theatre’s main stage. (A co-production with Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop and the National Arts Centre, Adventure embarks for Ottawa in late October.)
Set in a 200-year-old black community in rural Ontario, Adventures is a feel-good play about faith and coming to terms with death. At its centre is not Abendigo, but his daughter Rainey (Lucinda Davis) – a doctor who lost her five-year-old daughter to meningitis three years earlier. Since, she’s given up her practice, taken to popping aspirin and eating cigarette ashes, and is on the verge of finalizing a divorce with her husband, a country preacher named Michael (Quincy Armorer).
In this new production based on the original, however, Abendigo and his Lotsa Soap gang provide the more engaging theatrics. They are a group of five black senior citizens – played with the utmost charm by Borden, plus Barbara Barnes-Hopkins, Lili Francks, Rudy Webb and legendary blues and gospel singer Jackie Richardson – dedicated to the Liberation of Thoroughly Seditious Artifacts Symbolizing the Oppression of African People.
Dressed in trench coats and sunglasses when they go on missions, they have been radicalized in their dotage by the local council’s decision to rename Negro Creek Road – a name that has been deemed politically incorrect, but honours a part of the black community’s history. This land was their ancestors’ reward for fighting in the Coloured Corps in the War of 1812.
In response, Lotsa Soap embarks on a mission to free lawn jockeys, little black gnomes, and other stereotypical ornaments from the surrounding area – all the while hidden in plain sight as a cleaning company. While the play’s satirical attacks on remnants of racism might feel gentle in the age of Black Lives Matter activism, Sears’ underlying conceit feels ahead of its time in a way – the play’s questions surrounding appropriation and reappropriation of racial imagery and language are thoroughly mainstream today, as Twitter explodes daily over who used what word in what context. (Even the title of Sears’ play title is a liberation of language, borrowed as it is from a short story by Bernard Shaw.)
Less resonant in this Montreal/Ottawa production is the exploration of Rainey’s grief – in part due to Lucinda Davis’s quiet, understated, almost casual portrayal of the character. Her grief is smaller-than-life, an interesting choice – but without her teetering on the edge, the play lacks urgency. Likewise, while Quincy Armorer as Michael is stirring in his sermons – and a very funny straight man to the Lotsa Soap crew – he’s as of yet missing chemistry with Davis’s Rainey. The tragedy of their divorce is missing.
The larger problem with Sears’s play is that all its characters are so genial and good-natured that there is little immediate tension. They struggle with grief, failing bodies or failing faith, and racism that stays off the stage – but not really with each other.
This may prevent Adventures from being a great drama – but Sears’s larger production concept remains a stirring one. The bulk of the cast plays a chorus who embody the character’s ancestors and also, at times, the land surrounding Negro Creek. They perform a cappella music composed by Sears and Alejandra Nunez and movement choreographed by Vivine Scarlett throughout – almost transforming the play into a musical. Indeed, on opening night, there was so much singing and moving about between the written scenes that the play dragged on past 11 o’clock. Surely, as the run continues, Negro Creek will flow more smoothly.
Jim Burke on September 25, 2015 for the Montreal Gazette
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The last time Lucinda Davis appeared at the Centaur, she was playing God herself in The Book of Bob, a variation on the story of the tribulations of Job. This time around, she’s playing the Job figure as a young Ontarian woman, Rainey, who hits the stage howling, lifting up her dying baby to the seemingly indifferent heavens.
Bereaved, Rainey develops a compulsion to eat dirt, gives up on a successful medical career and dedicates herself to wrestling with the big questions about God and suffering – of which there’s more for our heroine, as she learns that her beloved father has only days to live.
If all this makes The Adventures of a Black Girl In Search of God sound like a right old misery fest, you might be surprised to learn that Djanet Sears’s epic play – first produced by her own Obsidian Theatre company in 2002, and now being co-produced by Centaur, Black Theatre Workshop and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre – is an often joyous affair, bursting with soulful a cappella song and willowy choreography from its 22-strong cast, and with a strand of comedy straight out of the silliest Hollywood heist caper.
This last aspect is particularly surprising, given that it centres on the indignities that Afro-Canadians have had to endure ever since a number of them escaped from America’s slave-owning states through Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad. Rainey’s father, Abendingo (played with twinkly charm and occasional fiery zeal by Walter Borden), is the ringleader of a loveable bunch of septuagenarian desperadoes who call themselves the Lotsa Soap Company. Their mission? To liberate demeaning symbols of casual racism, which might include lawn jockeys, grinning busts, even the smiling old lady on pancake mix packets. More seriously, they’re engaged in a campaign to retain the historical name of a nearby river, Negro Creek, which the authorities want to change for politically correct reasons. (It was named in honour of a black regiment which fought valiantly in the War of 1812.)
The title comes from a little-known short story from George Bernard Shaw, and early on there’s a touch of Shavian cut-and-thrust as Rainey and her estranged pastor husband Michael (Quincy Amorer) clash over theology and harsh reality. But the Governor General Award-winning Sears, who also directs, with assistance from BTW’s Mike Payette (he previously directed Sears’s Harlem Duet at the Segal Centre), is aiming at something a lot more sensuous, certainly a lot less intellectually flinty. Much of the often-intoxicating impact of her play comes from the inclusion of a chorus of ancestors – in Vivine Scarlett’s choreography, they constantly and sinuously flow across the stage to perform scene changes, and sometimes enact the scenery themselves, most notably the undulating waters of Negro Creek. They also provide a continual and beautifully uplifting soundscape of gospel and traditional African song.
The trouble is that this impressive formal aspect of the play tends to overwhelm the dramatic content which, despite the weighty issues, is surprisingly thin. Although put through the emotional wringer, Rainey comes over as pretty much a passive and reactive character rather than one who is on an obsessive search for some mighty truth, and the usually excellent Davis is only occasionally given the opportunity to shine. And as gently amusing as the Lotsa Soap gang comic business is, much of it amounts to old clichés trotted out to get easy laughs (the old whiskey-snuck-into-the-sick-room routine being perhaps the most familiar example).
Kudos to Sears for hitting on such a bold theatrical approach,which really does provide some unforgettable moments – up there is the defiant gospel hymn led by a scalp-tingling Jackie Richardson following the desecration of Michael’s church. But it’s an approach that ultimately feels as though it’s in search of stronger dramatic material.
By Rachel Levine on September 25, 2015 for Montreal Rampage
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Lights go down and from the back of the Centaur a voice breaks out in a tremendous song. Sheets fall from the sky to the stage in a gripping flutter. The cast comes down the aisles to the stage singing and dancing. Upon arrival, the dance evolves into a mythic, stylized pantomime that ends with an EMT walking away with an all too ephemeral baby, leaving its mother, Rainey (Lucinda Davis) distraught. Dramatic, moving, energetic, and performed with crisp perfection, The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God does not rest from this stunning opening to its final curtain call.
Djanet Sears’ play is one of the most anticipated productions at the Centaur and it exceeds all expectations. The story is intricate, but the 22-person cast weaves the engrossing story before our eyes with deft movements and visual flair. Rainey’s life seems to be one of constant change. She’s given up her medical practice for grad school after losing her child, she’s divorcing her charismatic pastor husband (Quincy Amorer), and her aging ex-judge father is suffering from a fatal health condition. Unable to accept loss with grace, Rainey fights to keep her child symbolically alive by refusing to visit her grave and she endeavors to get her father into a medical trial against his wishes. As focused as the show is on Rainey, it is no less about her father “the judge” (Walter Borden) who has an on-going pet project with his four closest friends that entails Oceans Eleven levels of planning. Did I also mention that there’s a missing family heirloom from the War of 1812 and a fight to stop the whitened-up renaming of Negro Creek Road to something more politically correct?
As Rainey’s story unfolds, the play relies upon its chorus of ancestors to heighten every scene as well as scene-changing interludes with a capella Afro-folk music and dance (composed by Alejandra Nunez, music direction Andrew Craig, and choregoraphed Vivine Scarlett). The choreography of their movements is done with such care, whether they are performing a variation of African dance, serving as the congregation at a sermon, or transforming into Negro creek itself with their arms as flowing water. The costumes are the best I’ve seen (costumer Astrid Janson will not be forgotten) and even the lighting is masterful, with perfectly aimed beams to spotlight Rainey in the crowd of parishioners.
The script is warm and comedic, with plenty of tender moments and brilliant zingers. Lucinda Davis has long been a local favourite with ability to capture complicated emotional states. Her humanity comes through when she speaks and even when her character sits in a chair, head tilted and feet tucked under — she conveys so much emotional depth. Not to fret, Amorer matches her with strength and dignity as he plays the public and private face of the pastor/ex-husband-to-be Michael. Borden, too, is strong as her sassy, intelligent father, and his colleagues are bursting with personality.
I generally dislike when playwrights add didactic explanations of history and discuss racism in the dialogue of an otherwise a story-driven show. It always seems ill-fit and glaring, like extra digits stitched onto a hand. While Adventures has many moments where Sears shows the current problems of racism and adds facts about black history in an integrated manner, at times she seems to put words into her characters’ mouths that are intended to bring an ignorant audience up to speed rather than advance the plot. However, the strength of the show makes these forgivable, and of course, current events remind us of our responsibility to acknowledging historic and present injustices. If Sears wants to teach Canada’s rarely shared black history and remind her audience that racism happens to us here and now, more power to her.
The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God is stunning. The story is deeply satisfying, the characters lovable, the acting moving, the chorus delightful, and every detail given lavish care. Miss this one at your peril.
By Marilla Steuter-Martin on October 8, 2015 for Broadway World Review
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The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God is the most recent oeuvre from Canadian playwright Djanet Sears.
Put on in collaboration with the Black Theatre Workshop and the Centaur Theatre, the production was directed by Sears herself.
While the story addresses sombre themes of loss and grief, the play succeeds in creating a counterbalance of more lighthearted elements.
It tells the story of a woman, played by the effortlessly graceful and evocative Lucinda Davis, who struggles to move past the death of her child.
The cast features a large ensemble who help to move the action along with frequent interludes of original music and African-inspired dance. The music was strikingly beautiful in its simplicity. It was composed by Alejandra Nunez, with Sears listed as a co-composer. The vocalists on display were immensely talented, channeling a deep, soulful, almost-gospel tone throughout.
While the title would suggest an overtly religious play, the characters are free to move fluidly in the spaces between faith, doubt and beyond. While Davis’ character is caught in a cycle of grief and guilt over the loss of her daughter, her father Abendigo is the proverbial ray of sunshine.
As members of the black minority living in a small community in Ontario, Michael and his band of senior citizens embark on a series of missions to “liberate” racially offensive objects from the lawns of their neighbours. While practically relegated to a subplot, the antics of the group are a bright spot of humour in the drawn out discussion of religion, heartbreak and death.
Rounding out the central cast is Quincy Armorer, artistic director of the Black Theatre Workshop, who plays the lead’s love interest and main religious figure.
The play is both emotionally raw and extremely polished. Sears’ text is thoughtful and touching, which goes nicely with the paired down, simplistic set and costume design. Visually-it’s highly realistic-which contrasts dramatically with the constant, swaying presence of the chorus.
As outlined in Sears’ Director’s Note, many of the events described in the play are based on true stories, many of which came from the playwright’s own life. This makes for a fully fleshed out narrative that captures the highs and lows of human struggle and perseverance, while highlighting so many of the little moments that make life worth living.
Family, community and faith make up the heart of this play, brought to life in vivid detail by an impressive cast and creative team at the Centaur.
By: Sharman Yarnell on October 1, 2015 for the Montreal Times
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The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God is a beautifully written piece of work by Djanet Sears. Such suffering, such joy, expressed with song and dance, interspersed with the story by the actors, as in the African tradition.
The chorus of dancers/singers (the ancestors), between the scenes, is absolutely thrilling! Kudos to Vivine Scarlett, VaNessah-Rose Sears-Duru and Fleurette Fernando for their evocative choreography. One could hardly wait for the appearance of these performers throughout the play. The bodies flowed, swayed and stomped their feelings into the ground and lifted their joy up to the skies, became a rippling creek – or simply sat…watching.
The small chorus of three women and two men dressed in trench coats and sunglasses, (Lotsa Soap Gang) is involved in fiendish shenanigans. They are stealing…NO, they are “liberating”certain artifacts that are symbols of oppression to African people. (Lawn jockeys, Aunt Jemima busts, etc.) They are also fighting to prevent the local powers-that-be from changing the name of Negro Creek to something said authorities deem more acceptable. There’s a story within the story, of the creek being named for the black men who fought in the war of 1812, and the tunic of one soldier that lies waiting to be “liberated”from the local museum.
This intrepid little gang serves as much needed comedic relief to what is a serious and heartbreaking topic.
Death – How to deal with the grief when it has happened and how to prepare for it.
The play digs deeply into the many confusing aspects of what happens around us and to us when a loved one dies or is dying. But it’s not as simple as that, as there are so many different layers of emotion that are under the words of the playwright. More words, feelings that are not touched on. Indeed, there is much left uncovered.
Lucinda Davis (Rainey) fears it and tries to hold on to what was, searching for the meaning in her young daughter’s death of meningitis. She is also denying that which is to come. Her father’s death. Davis doesn’t quite get the power and strength that is required for this pinnacle role – rather, she flows through it with a certain relaxation around her. One wants to feel the anger and frustration, not necessarily expressed, but surging below the surface of Rainey. That isn’t there.
Her father, on the other hand prepares for death in extremes, much to her horror! Walter Borden (Abendigo) puts in a solid performance as Rainey’s dying father. He projects warmth, charm and a wonderful sense of humour.
And then there’s Jackie Richardson (Darese), part of the Lotsa Soap Gang who, from her first appearance, as she bops out on stage, grabs the attention of the audience. Titters and giggles are heard throughout as we know this lady is going to deliver. This powerhouse of a jazz/blues singer brings the house down with a gospel piece shortly into the second act.
Quincey Armorer (Michael) is strong and calmly focused as Rainey’s husband and local preacher. It is he who throws us a bit of a stunner at the end of the play. All is not what it seems –
A tad long (over three hours on opening night) Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God is the largest cast ever to perform on the Centaur stage. Direction by Djanet Sears is lacking in pace and becomes a bit choppy at times. Tightening it up, making the scenes flow a bit more smoothly from dance to the scene work, would help tremendously.
This is an extremely expressive piece of theatre – co-produced by Centaur, Black Theatre Workshop and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, where it heads off to after the stint at the Centaur.
It is a play that must be seen for its creative story-telling and its message of hope.
The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God
A review of Djanet Sears’ latest production at the Centaur
By Byron Toben for Westmount Magazine
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Back in 1932, G. Bernard Shaw penned a short story called “The Adventures of a Black Girl in Her Search for Her God”. In 1962, the then experimental London Mermaid theatre presented a dramatic version of Shaw’s work, which focused on rejections of different versions of God and generated many parodies of the piece (more on that at the end of this review).
The wonderful production of Djanet Sears’s very similarly titled. “The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God” is in no way a parody or updated take on Shaw’s theophilosophical novella. Indeed, her alternate title might well have been ‘A Black Girl In Search of Herself”. The girl in question is Rainey (grippingly played by Lucinda Davis), who is separated from Michael (Quincy Armorer), the local preacher. Rainey, mourning for the loss of their baby daughter to meningitis, blames herself, becomes despondent, and self punishing, questions the beneficence of a God who, despite all, she still believes in. The two live in Negro Creek, a tiny enclave in Ontario which was given in thanks to some soldiers of African descent who fought on the British side in the war of 1812 (Canada didn’t exist yet).
The present day local authorities, perhaps trying to be politically correct, are seeking to rename the place. However, even though the term. Negro had by now acquired an antiquated, even pejorative connotation, it was their heritage and recognition of the black residents of the area. The resistance involves an amusing plot by Rainey’s father, retired jurist Abendigo (Walter Borden) to forestall this change by “liberating” black lawn jockeys and seizing an 1812 uniform from a museum. In this, he is joined by a coterie of septuagenarian friends (Barbara Barnes-Hopkins, Lili Franks, Jackie Richardson and Rudy Webb). His eventual on stage death brought tears to some members of the opening night audience. The activities of this lovable gang would be a sort of senior citizens’ gang heist film were it not for Ms Sears’ decision to wrap the whole with 14 other “ancestors” dancers and singers (many of whom have starred in major roles elsewhere) to also portray the creek itself, a church congregation and an overall “texture” which lifts the presentation from clever repartee and individual conflicts to, well, a real integrated work of art. The African harmonies (à la “the Lion King”) and methods of non verbal story telling work well to blend history and culture with modern settings.
Some individual notes: Mr Borden, who appeared in the original Canadian production in 2002, appears not to have lost a step. Tristan D. Lalla, here appearing as one of the sort of Greek chorus, actually played God in “Jesus Jello” in 2010. Ms Davis, here searching for God – or herself – also played God in Arthur Holden’s “Book of Bob” at the Centaur last year, and replaced Mr Lalla in a remount of “Jesus Jello”. Ms Richardson, a famous blues and gospel performer, really belts them out in this performance. The entire show, a co-production with the Black Theatre Workshop and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, moves to Ottawa to be performed at the NAC there from October 21 to November 7.
Oh yes, back to Mr Shaw, whose title inspired Ms Sears. Parodies piled up: The White Girl in Search of God, The Brown Girl in Search of God, even God in Search of Mr Shaw. Shaw was castigated in some circles for suggesting that future generations would become coffee coloured. Someone should put on a dramatic reading of Shaw’s original story. I for one, would attend.
By Toula Drimonis on September 30, 2015 for Headspace
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The only thing a self-professed summer lover like myself looks forward to in the fall (no, don’t say “cozy turtlenecks” I will hurt you) is the start of theatre season. And when I heard that the Centaur was going all-out for their 47th season opener with an astounding 22-member cast for their staging of The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of a God I was both impressed and curious to see how they would pull it off.
A co-production with the National Arts Centre (NAC) and in association with the Black Theatre Workshop (BTW), The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of a God is a mouthful to say and an ambitious labour of love for a whole bunch of people.
With 22 actors on stage, at least a dozen designers and creative artists, as well as another 30 people or so involved from the various artistic companies, there are a number of ways this could have all gone wrong. It doesn’t, however. It beautifully tells a tale of love, loss, faith, resistance, redemption, and ultimately finding peace – with ourselves and with each other.
Rainey (competently played by Lucinda Davis) is a country doctor, whose family can be traced back to the origins of Negro Creek, a 200-year-old Black community in Western Ontario. She’s abandoned her husband, her practice, and her faith, following the death of her young daughter from meningitis. As she’s about to finalize her divorce with her husband (played with understated charm and sensitivity by BTW’s Artistic Director Quincy Armorer), her elderly father (and retired Ontario judge) Abendingo is still busy fighting The Man with his gang of septuagenarian activist friends.
Played with immaculate comedic timing and infectious sass, the geriatric members of the Liberation of Thoroughly Seditious Artifacts Symbolizing the Oppression of African People (or LOTSASOAP if you’re short on time) like to don sunglasses and trench coats and embark on dangerous and perfectly orchestrated missions to “free” lawn jockeys, Aunt Jemima memorabilia, and other stereotypical racist objects symbolizing a less enlightened time in our history.
Seventy-two year old veteran actor Walter Borden is an absolute joy to watch as retired judge Abendigo, while he deals with a grieving daughter, his frail health and impending death, and a desire not to let life’s joys or priorities pass him by because of either. His physicality and nuanced and passionate performance made Borden’s Abendigo immensely watchable and real to me. So real, in fact, that the interactions between him and his daughter in a hospital setting were often almost too painful to endure for someone who had – not too long ago – said goodbye to her own aging father.
The rest of the LOTSAOAP gang (Barbara Barnes-Hopkins, Lili Francks, and Rudy Webb) are just as endearing and enjoyable to watch, with special mention going out to blues and gospel singer Jackie Richardson for her spunky acting, as well as her beautiful voice that had the crowd on its feet by the time she finished singing “What a Friend we Have in Jesus!”
Rooted in African storytelling traditions, and something that is also a familiar part of ancient Greek tragedies, a chorus of ancestors introduce, personify, pre-empt, accompany, and eventually help conclude the entire story with beautiful choreography and a compelling and often extremely moving soundtrack, written by Alejandra Nunez and Djanet Sears. They seamlessly go from being the beating heart of the production’s soundtrack with their lovely a cappella sounds, to having their intertwining ever-reaching bodies and hands personifying the water of Negro Creek itself. I don’t think the story would have worked nearly as well without their joyous, luminous presence during every step of an – often, hard and heavy – story to share.
Lucinda Davis, who I last saw in BTW’s wonderful one-woman play Random, is very good, but often uneven in this production. There are times when I feel her grief immensely and other times when it leaves me indifferent. To be fair, the numbing of emotions and the intense monotone of bitterness required of the character can be hard to emote and consistently communicate during a play that has a running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes. It’s a long time to be angry at the world, at God, and at the injustices of life. And this is a woman who has chosen to bottle all of her grief inside, unable to share her emotions with her soon-to-be ex-husband, not even capable of visiting her daughter’s grave. Still… something felt like it was missing and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Rest assured, however, that it doesn’t take away from a production that is too solid to be marred by minor quibbling on my part.
Written and directed by Governor General’s Literary Award winning playwright Djanet Sears, The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of a God is uniquely Canadian in that it’s set in an Ontario community nestled at the base of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. There are references to the War of 1812 and Captain Runchy’s Company of Coloured Men, a little-known military unit of African Soldiers, made up of free men and escaped slaves, who fought against the invading U.S. army. Following the war, these Black veterans were offered grants of farmland and this is the land that Rainey and Abendigo now gaze upon as they try to understand one another and why they do the things they do.
In the end, it’s less about understanding than it is about loving. Loving your life the way it’s been shaped, whether through circumstances or choice, and the people in it.
The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of a God is a strong and stirring start to the season and a production that is well worth catching. It continues at the Centaur Theatre until Oct. 18.
On September 28, 2015 for the Quebec Drama Federation
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Tamara Brown plays Martha/Ancestor/Performer in The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God, under the direction of Djanet Sears, running at the Centaur through October 18, 2015.
QDF: How was this production process different from others you have been involved with? What challenges did you encounter and what discoveries did you make?
Tamara: What makes this piece of theatre so distinct from other processes and from traditional Western Theatre practice is that often the different the artistic disciplines are very separate and specialized. But one of the things Djanet mentioned on our first day, was about the way she experienced this kind of work in Africa, and how the performing arts are integrated; that there is no separation of music from dance, from storytelling, from poetry, and so on. It all happens simultaneously, is interwoven and is inextricably linked.
In terms of this particular process of mounting the play, it also necessitated a very different approach, which has been a massive undertaking in only three weeks time (plus a week of tech rehearsal). This particular show has never been mounted in such a short time before. What the entire team has accomplished together is spectacular.
From the very first days, there was a lot of time spent giving and receiving love to one another in the company, time spent claiming and consecrating our space in the theatre and in the ensemble. We created an “altar of memories” to our craft, by sharing our stories about what keeps us grounded in the arts and just bonding with one another. We spend the first minutes of every day sharing and teaching one another something that we’ve learned, a special skill with each another. I confess that at the outset, as much as I loved it I also found it worrisome, given all the work that had to be accomplished in the short time we had. But now it has become clear to me (and to all of us, I think) that that investment of time is what has made us able to meet our goal.
You simply cannot compartmentalize and approach this work in a purely cerebral way. There is just too much information to take in; you can not sort it all out and so you have to trust the process and surrender to it. Singing, choreography, set changes that happen at different paces and rhythms… the Ancestors play instruments, beatbox, and more. The body has a wisdom of its own that helps to carry the load, our feet set a rhythm so that our voices and arms can play a counterpoint. As a group you’re constantly listening: you flock to each other, you exchange and all of those things have to happen simultaneously and look effortless so as to not distract from the action of the story. The choreography does not make sense without the music. The music has dynamics that influences the storytelling and the movement.
It has been a fascinating and a joyful struggle for me to work in this way, and it has been an adjustment for most of us in the cast. We’re very fortunate to have some returning cast members to this show who honour the work but are not intimidated by it. Once we stopped resisting the process and trying to break things down according to our own comfort level, it all began to gel. We were not given sheet music, rather we learned the entire score (co-written by Djanet Sears and Alejandra Nuňez) by ear; by listening to one other and learning how to transpose it into any key, doing it over and over again, often while dancing to learn how to place it in our bodies and how to breathe through it.
So now the show lives in our muscles and in our breath, which is something that never really happens so quickly in this work. That we arrived here in time for dress rehearsal is somewhat baffling to me, (but given the incredible professionals in the cast it shouldn’t be). In theory, this can’t be done and yet it was only made possible by this process, by the bond between the ensemble and because of a wonderful support team. It’s a testament to what can be accomplished when you have to get something done and especially to the faith and incredible leadership of Djanet Sears.
QDF: It seems to me watching the show, that it is so much more soundscape than what we consider music.
Tamara: We are ancestral voices, not strictly a chorus and so our relationship to sound is different. We all have relationships to one another and in varying degrees to each of the characters. The sounds that we make are as much a part of the environmental setting as they are the inner life of Rainey or Abendigo. To call it a musical would be wrong. It has music in it, and there is choreography in it but it is not about performing the dance. This is an environment we are creating, every movement has a purpose. We create chaos and entropy on stage and out of that, life and new things emerge. As Abendigo says (and I’m paraphrasing heavily), “Heaven is Negro Creek, and someday I will go back to the creek, become part of the grass that cows eat, which will feed someone, and thus continue the cycle of life.” So as ancestors we are in the trees, and in the water and wind. It’s a beautiful metaphysical concept; that we are all one, and that everything is everything.
QDF: Though there is a chorus, it is one made up clearly of individuals; connected to each other but each distinct from the other but working together. As an actor, how do you do this individuating, when you have no text to guide you.
Tamara: While some of us did not have such text referring to us specifically, on the first day of rehearsal we were all given the genealogy, a family tree that Djanet had created. We discussed the times that we lived in, and how we are related to one another and to Abendigo and Rainey (or Ivy, in my case). There are are cues for many of us within the text, and the rest we had to extrapolate. Nevertheless we all had a reason to be present in the action and to stay close to the Johnson family through those difficult times. For me personally, Martha is spoken of in the play: I play Rainey’s (Lucinda Davis) stepmother, I am Ivy’s (Lili Francks) sister, and I was married to Abendigo (Walter Borden), so although the character choices and motivations for Martha are difficult and frought, for me the text was very rich. I have a whole history with Rainey, and can track what happened in my character’s life through her, by imagining what kind of woman would raise Rainey to become the woman she is today.
To Djanet’s credit, she is wonderfully able to compartmentalize her writer brain from her director’s brain, and as a result the writer was never “present” in the process. She kept seeking ways to illuminate the text and to deepen her own understanding of the story as well as our own. So that lack of conflict between what she as a writer wants to say and what her vision as a director is never clashed in any way during the rehearsal process; she stayed open to discovery and to all of our input up to the very last day of rehearsal, which helped a lot.
I can’t speak for the other Ancestors, but I was very lucky in that my character was so well delineated and often spoken of. Martha might be “gone,” but she is still quite present. (Actually, I think that’s true of all the ancestors.) And we are all connected to each other. But in terms of the work of the actor it is always all about the choices; what is the most logical? What is the stronger, more authentic choice? What information is available in the script and what can you extrapolate from that?
There are no easy choices but that is what makes it great, a joy of a story to tell.
QDF: Based on that, and the fact that the character is a woman of colour, did that cause you to make different choices than you would usually?
Tamara: I can only work with the skin I am in. If the ethnicity of a character is not specified in the text, I play every role as I am, and with everything I understand of that. I think that is what makes a role interesting. I believe I always have something to offer to a role because I am unique. I think that the image of a woman of colour is so valuable for the audience to see in stories. Viola Davis just spoke of this. Audiences have to see us to be able to imagine what is possible. It is great when a role is written with you in mind, but I would say that the bulk of the roles I get to play are race specific, and so I relish every opportunity to play when it is not specified. Then I can think about choices that are authentic to me and still fit within the text. The choices that I make might be different from my Caucasian colleagues, because of how I inhabit my Black and Aboriginal body given the reality of this world, and how I have to navigate space differently from others as a result.
It can bring a different dimension of truth to the storytelling that can be very interesting for audiences that may not be accustomed to it, and empowering for other audiences who don’t see a wider dimension of their stories told beyond issues of race that nevertheless reflect their reality.
QDF: We know you to be a Director as well. Are there things that you are picking up and thinking that you want to bring to your own practice?
Tamara: There are definitely a couple of things, but I try not to think about that as there is so much work to do as an actor and I simply can’t spare the brain space. It was one of the reasons I so appreciated my time in the Black Theatre Workshop Artist Mentorship Program and during my artistic residency as a director. It gave me the space to observe great directors at work and think about and reflect on my own strategies and tactics. Still, it is hard not to think about and be inspired by the choices that Djanet makes as a director. This play, and this company has irrevocably changed me. I have never done anything like this before: to work with legends who are in their 70s and still doing great work, and to work with a script like this – I can’t be the same, I will never be the same.
I think to approach the work with love and kindness is always useful, and that is what I learned from Djanet and something that I will take with me. You can’t scrimp on the time needed to develop the bond of the ensemble, it saves so much time and aggravation down the road. Especially with a show like this one, there is so much pressure, that it would be easy to fracture and snap at one another as things come down to the wire. You have to be vigilant, because that tension can snowball and it’s so easy to forget that we are all working together towards the same goal.
As a performer, I am doing things I never thought possible. Based on the audition and callback, I had no idea what would be required of me as a member of this ensemble. I’m deeply flattered that Djanet had a vision for what I am capable of, because I certainly did not at the time. This process broke me down. I had planned to do other projects alongside this one, but within the first day and a half I knew – so long friends and family, I’ll see you in November.
Even once we open, I will spend my days recuperating, and then coming back and giving it all to the work, because it requires that. We all just want to give Djanet her story, because it demands that.
QDF: This season many companies are putting the spotlight on women. What do you think that women bring to the work.
Tamara: Well it is a different lens, a frame through which we see the world. The reality is, more women buy theatre tickets than men. What it means to have your own story reflected back at you authentically is difficult to express, but it means so much to have that validation. Women have to be able to tell their own stories. Any writer with some imagination and empathy can reach out and tell the story of the Other, but I think it is really important for people who enjoy any modicum of privilege to make room for others to tell their own stories and let them speak for themselves. It matters. It makes a huge difference. That’s how to be an ally.
There are many white male writers who I’m sure would love to reach out and tell a story like this one, but there is a sensibility that is innate to Djanet that is valuable and it cannot be mimicked. Even if they wrote with the exact same words, it would not be the same. Because of who is speaking, because of who are the bodies that inhabit this story. Maybe you’ve heard this story before, but not with the characters who inhabit it, and this is the crucial distinction. The story is not for everyone, but it is directed at everyone, if you know what I mean. Some might resent that, but for others it is very meaningful and important that this be the case.
QDF: From here the show goes to Ottawa. Do you think the show will change as the result of the different audience?
Tamara: The bulk of the changes will have to do with navigating the space of the theatre itself. Montreal audiences are known for being vocal and very appreciative. My experience of playing in Ontario is that while audiences are just as appreciative, they might be less vocal about it. That being said, this is such a singular show, a type of theatre people don’t often get to see.
There has been a lot of buzz about this show in the Black and West Indian communities of Ottawa – thanks in great part to my very supportive mom- so I think that also makes a difference. It is just so powerful to get to see a reflection of yourself in a story. This is an opportunity we do not often get as people of colour or as aboriginals.
Who knows how the show will be received in Ottawa, but I find it hard to believe that anyone would not be moved by the themes in this show. It is just so epic: it is about love, loss, death, the nature of faith and science and so much more. How do we deal with unspeakable tragedy? How do we reconcile the strange within us when we are so badly scarred? What do we do when we feel untethered from everything that keeps us anchored in this world? What do we hold onto? Such huge, sweeping themes. In any case, it’s not my responsibility to make an audience feel anything, that’s up to them. My job is to tell the story as faithfully as I can.
QDF: What is next for you?
Tamara: This week, I begin assisting Roy Surette while he directs Butcher at Centaur. When I come back from Ottawa I would like to rest, but we will see if that happens. (If I get the chance to work, I’ll absolutely take it; telling stories is my favourite thing in the whole world.) I am also currently on hold for a tv series I shot before we started here, while assisting Dean Fleming and Jess Abdallah at Geordie Productions. I can’t wait to get to see Squawk and Sidewalk Chalk when I come back home from the NAC.
In December or January, I will be workshopping Last Night at the Gaiety for Centaur while writing Songs and Stories for Black history month, a touring Canadian history presentation and conversation that I’ve done for the past two years with kindergarten and elementary school students in February with an amazing organization called Overture With the Arts. I will also help to coordinate BTW’s Vision Celebration Gala in January, which will honour Jackie Richardson with the Martin Luther King Jr. Award for her many contributions to the arts in Canada. And then in March, rehearsals start for Gayety. My life is very good right now and I’m so grateful to be a part of this arts community in Montreal.
QDF: You are far from taking your place as an Elder, but you have reach the point where you make an excellent mentor for those coming up behind you. What would you say to the young Black aspiring artist to prepare them for what they will face, and to motivate them to keep going?
Tamara: A lot the opportunities that I have had are a result of asking for them, so I’d say: don’t be shy to ask for what you want and to put yourself out there. You have to be open to talking to new people and telling them what you are about. Get to know as many people as you can, and then hustle to make things happen and to create partnerships with the people that you want to work with. Nothing gets handed to you in this industry, these days you have to also be a creator as well as a performer to some degree. And the reality is that directors get used to calling on mainly the people they know, which is why we need to be challenged to step out of our own comfort zones. If you do not let them know that you are here and what you want to do, they will not necessarily think of you when opportunities arise that fit you. Those possibilities may not even occur to them until you put yourself forward.
You also have to have your own standards about the kind of artist you are and what you will do, to strive for excellence and be able to live with what you put out there. I don’t know that it is useful to take on the idea of having to “represent” for others. We’re not a monolith. What I do think is important, is to be uncompromising about your personal dignity and never do what is uncomfortable or feels inappropriate. That being said, if you can do like Lucinda Davis, who can take a grilled cheese sandwich of a role and serve it up to you like it’s a fine steak dinner, then definitely do that. She brings all of her intelligence and humanity to every role that she plays and makes something more of it. It’s why she’s one of our very best actors in my opinion.
Make them SEE you.
Tamara will be performing in The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God at Centaur Theatre from September 22nd- October 18th.