The Colony of Unrequited Dreams Brings Newfoundland History to Life

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carmen grant & colin furlong

Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, now playing in Halifax at Neptune Theatre, is an adaptation by Robert Chafe from Wayne Johnston’s 1998 novel of the same name. It is a work of historical fiction, which imagines the real-life Joe Smallwood, sometimes called “The Last Father of Confederation,” interwoven in the life of a fictional Sheilagh Fielding, an ambitious and cutting political journalist, against the backdrop of the fall of the Dominion of Newfoundland.

There are so many beautiful layers to Chafe’s play. At its core, it is about the relationship between two very complex human beings, Fielding and Smallwood. Fielding is a pioneering, entrepreneurial woman, who is also an alcoholic battling deep secrets and intense emotional struggles. Carmen Grant creates a true force of nature in this deeply flawed woman, whose writing talent and tenacity to survive in a man’s world is, nevertheless, inspiring. Colin Furlong plays Smallwood, the scrappy underdog, as a man continually trying to do the right thing, but who often finds he’s accidentally screwed something up. There is a bit of a hapless Rick Moranis in Furlong’s portrayal of Smallwood, which ensures that even when all the odds are stacked against him, we’re still rooting for him to succeed.   

Chafe’s characters also beautifully mirror the political landscape in Newfoundland in the years between 1927 and 1948. Smallwood is the perpetual idealist. He begins as a passionate Socialist advocating for Newfoundland’s poorest residents. He believes, earnestly, that he is working in the best interest of the working class, and that there is reason for hope among Depression and possibility among War, and he latches on to Confederation with Canada as a testament to that promise. Sheilagh Fielding, on the other hand, is the cold voice of Cynicism. As a journalist she criticizes all sides of the political spectrum. In her column hope and idealism are  sneered at and dismissed as naive. She views Newfoundland with a hard sense of fatalistic doom. Both represent a clash of two prevalent viewpoints. In a similar way, Fielding is Cosmopolitan and worldly; she writes with scathing wit and academic sophistication, catering to a certain audience, largely centred in St. John’s. Smallwood reaches a different demographic in focusing on the Island’s folklore on The Barrelman, his radio program. It then becomes clear that the future of Newfoundland’s nationhood is divided along these same geographical and economic lines.

Although this play is set in the 20th Century, it is timely to see a story of politicians being beleaguered by a free press; one might even charge Fielding with printing “Fake News.” Although, it was the scene where three men sit at a typewriter intent on destroying the career of a female journalist, to shut her up and to break her, that I found most eerily reminiscent of our own time. It reminded me of the Twitter war against Leslie Jones after Ghostbusters was released and of Donald Trump’s inexcusable treatment of Megyn Kelly. In that moment, Sheilagh Fielding was Everywoman who dares to push the boundaries for women, and who dares to express herself in print.

The cast is uniformly excellent. Furlong and Grant both give formidable, deeply nuanced and heartrending performances. Steve O’Connell and Alison Woolridge shine dramatically as Smallwood’s parents, Charlie and Minnie, embroiled in domestic troubles of their own.

Jillian Keiley directs the piece with a beautiful, continuous sense of movement, and of time, and perpetual snow, that clearly propels the audience through this truly epic era of Newfoundland history. The sets and props are minimal, which gives Keiley the freedom to take us anywhere in a moment and the stage effortlessly transitions between scenes with ten actors (large by Canadian standards), to much more intimate moments with just Fielding or just Smallwood.

I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t know very much at all about the history of Newfoundland, beyond that she joined Canada in 1948, until I saw this play. Its history is far more dramatic than I realized, and I was truly riveted throughout, not knowing how the demise of the Dominion of Newfoundland was going to play out. It is so important that we tell these stories and also that we take them out of our Communities and share them with those who live elsewhere in the country, and beyond. I feel enriched in my new knowledge of how Newfoundland came to join the Dominion of Canada, and to learn so much while being so thoroughly entertained and moved, is really the best the theatre can ask for.

The Colony of Unrequited Dreams plays on Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall Stage in Halifax (1593 Argyle Street) until March 12. Show times are Tuesdays to Sundays, 7:30 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range in price from $33 to $70 and are available here.     

The Space Between

11221648_127633380934590_8769175095277100444_nSimeon Taole’s The Space Between, which plays at the Atlantic Fringe Festival until September 6th is a gorgeous play, exquisitely performed by Taole, that I wish was running here in Halifax for much longer (and in a larger venue), so that everyone could have the opportunity to see it.

The Space Between tells the story of Winston, who falls in love with Celeste when he is nine years old, shortly before he moves from America back home to South Africa. The children become pen pals and as Winston grows older his love for Celeste only deepens, but so too does his sense of the giant space, both geographical and experiential, between them.

Winston endures horrifying injustice at the hands of a teacher in school, and lives in a place where he faces constant, blatant, racism under Apartheid. Celeste writes about attending a Detective Themed Summer Camp. Taole does a beautiful job in rooting this play in the relationship between Winston and Celeste, and the ways in which his love for her shapes his life, even while he is so far away from her. The underlying themes of white privilege and Systemic Racism are all there for us to unpack and to contemplate long after Taole takes his bow, but as Taole writes in his Playwright’s note, “it is [a story] of unrelenting hope and the innocence of young love.”

One of the most striking aspects of this play is how Taole explores the arc of Celeste, who although unseen onstage, is full of such nuance. We see, for example, how as children Winston and Celeste are not immune to discussions of race, but more innocent to the impact skin colour has to so many facets of life. When there is a break in their correspondence it is both a moment that anyone who has lost contact with a best childhood friend can relate to, but also poignant and thought provoking to see this experience through the lens of race. Celeste mirrors the white Canadian audience’s journey as we come to learn how much there is that we don’t know, whether about invisible countries or the dawning knowledge that we can never understand what Systemic Racism feels like unless we have experienced it ourselves. Our lack of understanding and inability to relate often makes us feel awkward and this unease often makes us distance ourselves even further. These chasms between people is where Systemic Racism thrives.

Taole gives a Tour De Force performance. He is captivating, heartbreaking and easy to cheer for. This is a play that needs to be seen. Go experience it while you have the chance.   

The Space Between plays at The Rainbow Room at Menz/Mollyz Bar (2182 Gottingen Street) at the following times:

Monday Sept 5th, 4:05PM
Tuesday Sept 6th, 6:55PM

Noun

13907044_10157247330925237_2529100910520245538_nBrandon Lorimer’s beautifully polished new play Noun, which plays until September 11th at the Atlantic Fringe Festival is, aptly, an exploration of language, and a quest of one young man’s attempt to find the meaning and reconstruct the history of a lost civilization from an assortment of stuff that remains in a Post-Apocalyptical World.

It is also a beautifully told story of the relationship between two vagrants (akin, in their way to the tramps in Godot), the innocent and exuberant A (Lorimer) and the more worldly and cautious B (Jeff O’Hara) as they cobble together enough for their bodies and souls to survive, while warding off the impending Troubles that threaten everyone. O’Hara and Lorimer have created two charming, intricate, quirky characters who are easy for the audience to love and care about and their joyful sense of fun is infectious. Lorimer’s playfulness of language is both creative and smart. It seems as though A and B have learned to speak English from both reading an eclectic array of old books, written in different Eras in History, and then also developed their own, often more literal, way of describing their own experiences. A’s obsession with learning what Gil Scott Heron’s Small Talk at 125th and Lenox “means” and how this grates on B’s nerves, raises questions about how we seek to learn from the past, and the limitations we face in looking back on a time that we might never understand. Do we respect our limitations and allow these artefacts to be forgotten, or do we take the risk of being “wrong” in attempt to learn something and preserve the legacy of those who have come before us?

Everything that happens onstage between A and B is beautifully constructed and very clearly presented. I liked having The Troubles as a vague, menacing, looming threat, but as the interaction between B and the Vendor became more defined at the end of the play things got a bit more unclear for me. There’s room here for Lorimer to clarify this relationship a bit. I don’t think the Vendor’s presence at the end is essential to the play, but I did enjoy her creepy and poetic performance, so I think there is likely a way to make her being there a more clearly necessary aspect of the resolution of the play.

Noun travels quickly through about a month’s worth of time and Director Annie Valentina does a beautiful job of making these transitions clear and artful. Lorimer’s sound design is also beautifully evocative of both A and B’s world and ours.

Noun is the most exciting new play I’ve seen come out of young playwright in Halifax for a long time. I hope to see another incarnation of it and soon.

Noun plays at the Bus Stop Theatre (2203 Gottingen Street) at the following times:

Mon Sept 5th, 3:10PM
Sat Sept 10th, 8:00PM & 11:10PM
Sun Sept 11th, 11:30AM

Speaking in Tongues: African Nova Scotian Storytellers

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david woods

I was so excited to see that Voices Black Theatre Ensemble have returned to the Atlantic Fringe Festival after last year’s beautiful Once: Africville Stories. The new show is called Speaking in Tongues: African Nova Scotian Storytellers and it brings some much-needed diversity of voices to the Atlantic Fringe and the Nova Scotia theatre community as a whole.

I was immediately captivated by Wanda Robson, Viola Desmond’s younger sister, who told us two stories about the strong women in her family- her mother, Gwendolin Davis, and her spirited Aunt May who, fortunately, didn’t get the memo that women at the time should be seen and not heard. Her stories are beautifully constructed and Robson is a heartfelt speaker, and does a great job of not just telling us the stories, but embodying the characters to give us a rich sense of their personalities. Vetty Thomas tells the most hilarious (and also, oddly heartbreaking) story of turkeys and bedwetting that on its own is worth the price of admission. David Woods does a gorgeous spoken word poem from the point of view of a lost, wandering woman who sees visions of Harriet Tubman. She proves both poetic and prophetic and her words are essential ones for every Nova Scotian to hear with open ears and to think on with open hearts. Nathan Simmons counters the popular, erroneous, assumption that “there are no black people in Cape Breton” by sharing the story of the Maxwell Twins, which made me want to do more reading about the History of African Nova Scotians in Cape Breton.

I was struck by how most of the stories in this show were connected immediately to the lives of the storyteller- each one a little memoir vignette. While Once was very firmly rooted in a place of the past, and the experience of Black Nova Scotians in a “Historic” time and place, Speaking in Tongues reminds us that personal history and family history are just as important an aspect of the History of a People and the History of a Place as events that time have rendered “Historic.”

Woods began the show by saying that in creating this show these storytellers had assembled enough stories to do three different shows. I hope they will mount these two and more. They are all equal parts entertaining, interesting and important. Nova Scotia is still a segregated place, and our History, and our Arts Communities are too often segregated too. It’s a fact that I know makes some people feel uncomfortable, and that many people don’t like to talk about, but I think we need to talk about it, and as white people (and I absolutely include myself in this), we need to listen. Speaking in Tongues: African Nova Scotian Storytellers is the perfect opportunity to listen. I felt lucky to be in the room. I want to know more, much more.  

Speaking in Tongues: African Nova Scotian Storytellers plays at the Bus Stop Theatre (2203 Gottingen Street) as part of the Atlantic Fringe Festival at the following times: 

Saturday Sept 3, 4:30pm
Sunday Sept 4, 12pm & 6:20pm
Monday Sept 5, 1:30
Tuesday Sept 6th, 6:20pm
Wednesday Sept 7th, 6:35pm
Saturday Sept 10, 3:00pm
Sunday Sept 11, 5:40pm

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