One of the things that I really enjoy about festivals like Supernova is getting the opportunity to see the work of emerging artists from across the country and productions that are often in their very early stages of development. Son of Africville written and directed by Justin Carter and Dama Hanks is one such show playing at the Neptune Studio Theatre as part of Eastern Front’s Supernova Theatre Festival.
Son of Africville is a raw and tender autobiographical story about a boy who said goodbye to his mother, a woman struggling with schizophrenia, in Halifax, Nova Scotia at seven years of age before being adopted by a family in British Columbia. Twenty years later the two are reunited after the mother has been diagnosed with cancer. Justin Carter infuses a heartbreaking story of loss, mental illness, drug addiction, poverty and racism with a tremendous amount of charm, humour and uplifting music. The loving way that he evokes his mother, who passed away two years after their only reunion, is almost a genetic marvel. Despite having been apart for twenty years he is able to emulate her manners of speech and her physical body language as well, which gives the audience a brilliantly clear picture of this complex and fascinating character.
According to the programme notes, this is not just Justin Carter’s first solo show, but also this production marks the first time that he has sang and played an instrument in public, which is quite remarkable especially considering most of the songs performed in this piece are ones he wrote himself. Carter’s musicality is obviously something he inherited from his mother and it is a poignant way to play tribute to her. His music is simple and a little repetitive at times, but really lovely. I especially loved his song about St. Catherine Street in Montreal. One of the most magical aspects of this evening’s performance was that many of Carter’s family members were in the audience and they typically talked back to him while he was performing, similar to the way the congregation answers the minister in church. When Justin began to sing a familiar hymn that his mother taught him, you could hear his family members singing along in harmony from the audience. I got chills. If every audience were as invested in the performing arts as this audience was the theatre in this city would be on fire!
I enjoyed this play just as it was but at the same time, I see massive potential in it for further development and polish. I think that with a strong directorial hand shaping the story, that Carter could find even more specificity and consistency in the creation of the vocal and physical aspects of all three of his characters. I also think the transitions between the scenes, the characters and the musical interludes could be made smoother and clearer with a more unifying vision. This show reminded me vividly of a musical show in the 2011 Atlantic Fringe Festival that came from New York City, Carlo Alban’s Intringulis, and I think Son of Africville could, with just a few adjustments, become a fully realized musical show to rival any other in the country.
In reference to the play’s title, Carter speaks about how his mother was one of fifteen children living in absolute poverty in a 3.5 bedroom house in Africville. He does not bog his story down with too much information about Africville, which I understand, as the point of the piece is his own personal story. Yet, I couldn’t help wanting more from him. As a 27 year old Caucasian girl born and raised in Halifax I feel like I don’t know enough about Africville and that everything that I do know about it has been told to me from a white perspective of embarrassment, shame and excuses. I was hoping that this play would delve a bit beyond what I already knew about the settlement of Africville and to offer up a different perspective, one that I feel so desperately needs to be told in this city. I believe that in theatre and in music is one of the most effective ways to do so.
Whether Justin chooses for this to be a more pertinent part in his story or not, I hope that this play will encourage more people of all sorts of diverse ethnicities in this city to be inspired to tell their own stories, to come into the theatre community and to give Halifax’s theatre-going public a myriad of varying perspectives on important and pertinent issues, such as the devastating and cowardly treatment of the people of Africville by our government in the 1960s. It is so massively important and our theatre community here desperately needs more colour, more languages, more voices and different perspectives.
I look forward to seeing the development of Son of Africville in the coming months. I think for this show the sky is the limit!
Son of Africville plays at the Neptune Studio Theatre (1593 Argyle Street, Halifax; next door to The Argyle Bar & Grill) as part of Eastern Front Theatre’s Supernova Festival at the following times:
Friday May 11 at 9:00pm
Saturday May 12th at 7:00pm
Sunday May 13th at 7:00pm
For more information or to book your tickets please call 902.429.7070 or visit this website.