a communal aria for all who knew grannie

andrea scott, joseph pierre, ordena,
marcel stewart, miranda edwards

Despite what popular culture may have you believe, I did not find it to be such a huge cultural adjustment when I moved to Toronto from little Halifax, Nova Scotia with a dream and my cardigan. Yet, there is one dynamic that I keep encountering in the Torontonian theatre which is completely unfamiliar to me and that is the influence of Toronto’s vibrant Jamaican community. For this reason I approached Obsidian Theatre’s production of ahdri zhina mandiela’s play who knew grannie: a dub aria with a particular mix of ardent curiosity, eagerness and apprehension. What was a dub aria and, with my very limited knowledge of Jamaican culture, would I be able to understand mandiela’s play well enough to be able to write about it without sounding like a provincial ignoramus?

Thankfully, mandiela confronts the question of dub arias in her informative Notes from the Playwright/Director in the show’s programme where she writes, “i say [a dub aria] is ‘an emotional flight usually done in a single melodic voice’ yet who knew grannie has five characters in this story… and they very seldom sing… i needed to bring several characters in one voice thru a single journey. the single melodic voice in this aria is stuffed with orality from all kind of corners: children’s games, choral work, dub poetry, opera, and even prayers: hence a dub aria.” The result is a beautiful mixing of styles and voices that all seem to keep time in the same rhythm and to tell the same universal story, the honouring of one’s grandmother, her heritage and her home.
The play begins with the death of grannie, an event that prompts her four grown grandchildren (each one cousins of one another), who are scattered across the world, to return home to Jamaica to say farewell. What follows is a nostalgic homage to a strong matriarch, bathed in the warm hues and shadows of memory and enriched by the poignant pulse of Amina Alfred’s percussion. The cousins immerse themselves into the most vibrant recollections of their childhood and they frequently layer their voices on top of one another so that no one cousin becomes the authority on grannie or the past. Instead, they suck one another in to certain communal experiences that they can share such as, the way their grannie called for them, the way she teaches them, the games they played together like “What Time Is It, Mr. Wolf” and certain songs like “Brown Girl in the Ring” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” These moments burst out to unify the voice into this sort of dub aria. The moments where the performers converge into dance and song are especially electric and both the energy and the emotion, which is always mirrored in the drum, is effortlessly contagious for the audience.
Ordena plays grannie with a grounded sense of strength and unmistakable love and respect for her grandchildren. Ordena gives grannie such dignity and vivaciousness that the audience becomes very quickly swept up in joining the cousins in the celebration of her life. Andrea Scott shines particularly bright as vilma, the oldest of the cousins who has grown up to be a successful and diligent politician with zero tolerance for nonsense and a firm handle on the world. It is particularly interesting to watch how Scott characterizes vilma as a child as it provides subtle insights into how her adult persona was shaped and fostered. Joseph Pierre plays tyetye, a lost soul with a bitter hesitance toward reconciling himself with the life of his mother. Marcel Stewart is dynamite as kris, the chef. Stewart is particularly wonderful as young kris, a boy who beams with adoration for grannie and longs for her affection, attention and praise. He also has a brilliant monologue where his happy facade splits open to reveal the anger and bitterness behind his dedication and ambition. Miranda Edwards is charmingly diffident and awkward as blind likklebit, whose sweet earnestness is irresistible as is her desire to soak up every ounce of the world around her. ahdri zhina mandiela’s direction is artful, at times stunningly so, and it evokes the sensation of the whirling of dreams, of memories, of faraway voices, distant thoughts and fantasies surrounding one woman as she makes her journey out of this world.
who knew grannie doesn’t offer its audience a revelation of something previously unknown; instead it celebrates something wonderfully familiar, the bonds of family and the heartbeat of home. At the end of the play the four cousins find themselves reunited, laughing through their tears, and I was left with an overwhelming urge to call my grandmother and to tell her I love her.
Obsidian Theatre’s who knew grannie: a dub aria is presented in association with Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst Street) and plays there until April 4th, 2010. For more information or to book your tickets please call Factory Theatre at 416.504.9971 or go online to http://www.factorytheatre.ca.  

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