Speaking in Tongues: African Nova Scotian Storytellers


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