Steal Away Home

Steal Away Home is a beautifully poetic story centering on Sista, a young girl attempting to come to terms with the traditions of her ancestors and her struggle to break the cycle of misogyny, abuse and abandonment at the hands of men that have plagued mothers and children for generations.

 Shauntay Grant tells this story mostly through vividly lyrical monologues, evocative song and overlapping poetic voices, which help to establish a strong sense of community and give the production, brought to life by three actors, a sense of depth and continuity. She also gives the piece a great contrast, between the traditional and religious hymns and overtones offered as a means of expression and salvation by her Mother and Grandmother, Sista instead finds her voice in a far more aggressive and cleverly rhymed poetry jam. Here she attacks the stereotypes of the black male, as so often depicted and constructed in the media by people of all colors and ethnicities. Yet, it is clear that even in this, Sista is not just speaking about black men, but all men who masquerade as poets and revolutionaries and use empty rhetoric for the sole intention of getting laid.

Naomi-Joy Blackhall-Butler plays Sista with a lovely mix of strength and vulnerability. She is endearing, yet potentially also self-destructive, which makes her immediately captivating for the audience. Jessica Brown plays her mother, Mama, as restrained as Sista is forthcoming. Brown is fantastic at alluding to the layers of repressed emotion buried deep within Mama with subtly and grace, but keeping her strongly grounded in her duty, faith and propriety. Suzy Hansen shines especially bright as Grandma, giving her a truly bright and specific voice and spirit that informs the entire piece. Hansen also has a strikingly gorgeous singing voice and all three are perfection when they sing all together in harmony.

I think that this play has the potential to be expanded, or at least for the two other Sista characters (also played by Brown and Hansen) to be mined out for their own unique voices and stories rather than reinforcing Sista #1’s position so much.  In the same way, I also think that Blackhall-Butler and Brown’s characters could benefit from delving even deeper into the emotions of the weightier issues in the play. I felt that their anger and their sadness often seemed to be coming from their throats, which produced a weaker effect than if they had been coming from deep within the core of their bodies.

ahdri zhina mandiela gives a great shape to the piece mirroring the layering of the voices with movement and ensuring that Brown and Hansen’s physicality between characters was clear and potent.

Often in the theatre in Halifax the demographics being reflected both onstage and off do not do at all do justice to the diversity of this city and the many different people of different cultures with disparate traditions, stories and experiences that live here. So, it is so refreshing to see a play like Steal Away Home at the Atlantic Fringe Festival because it is vitally important that our theatre community continues to diversify and to grow alongside the rest of Halifax and all of Nova Scotia. I hope to see much more of all four of these theatre artists in the very near future… perhaps even at Neptune Theatre, which I think needs to expand its Nova Scotian talent horizons most of all.    

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.  

El Numero Uno Isn’t #1

l-r: sabryn rock, john blackwood, jamie robinson, lisa codrington, jajube mandiela
el numero uno by pam mordecai, directed by ahdri zhina mandelia
on the mainstage beginning Jan. 31, 2010. photo: iden ford photography
El Numero Uno, the world premiere of a contemporary Caribbean fable by famed Jamaican author Pam Mordecai, playing at Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People until February 25th, 2010, comes in and out with a terrific bang; unfortunately, the middle slogs along like a soupy undercooked pancake.
This is especially regrettable because there is much to admire in El Numero Uno. It is the story of a teenaged orphan pig named Uno who is learning to become a chef from the master, Chef Trenton. When their food supplies become targets for mysterious thieves, the Chef sends Uno on a mission to gather special ingredients for a magical recipe. Uno, however, becomes distracted, cocky and careless and accidentally damages all the ingredients, lies about it and eventually becomes kidnapped by some mysterious beasts. The lessons and values in this story are implicitly woven into the story without seeming too contrived and the plot lends itself easily to the intrigue of magic, a sense of danger, and the potential for vibrant, quirky, and loveable characters. The Caribbean origins of this story lend so much possibility for the flair of the Islands to ignite the entire production in extraordinary rhythm, music and flavour giving everything a bright burst of energy, vibrancy and fun.
One of the biggest obstacles in this production is Andrew Broderick’s portrayal of Uno. While by times his physicality was reminiscent of a lackadaisical twelve year old, he always sounded like an adult imitating a small child rather than truly inhabiting the vocal timbres and capturing the spirit and specific demeanour of a teenager. I found that all the actors in this production were guilty to some degree of using contrived “we’re doing a play for children!” voices, which I always feel is condescending to the young audience members and undermines the very essence of children’s theatre as being a way for the youngest members of our society to connect ardently to stories that are relevant to their lives, in the same way that we, as adults, seek to connect to stories which are relevant for us. Jamie Robinson and Walter Borden were the most engaging actors to listen to and I found that they presented their characters with the most sincerity and respect, and thus, I feel like the children responded to them with the most gusto.
At the same time, director ahdri zhina mandiela created some vivid images and made good use of the stage, which was set in the round, and kept the actors continually moving, yet, I found that the comedic aspect of the show was not explored nearly as much as it could have been. The comic timing was particularly soupy, which meant that even jokes and puns inherent in Mordecai’s script were getting buried because the sense of play had not been established and the actors did not rise to the emotional heights needed to bring the comedy to life. There was a beautiful opportunity for brilliant comedic banter between the two twin beasts, one of which was hard of hearing. It was a match made in Vaudeville, or Saturday Morning Cartoon Heaven, and yet, despite this potential their scenes still fell flat.
Lastly, one of the most frustrating aspects of this show for me was how beautifully engaging the music in this show was at the beginning and the end and then how horrifically boring and languid it was while integrated into the plot. I wanted the creators to have created an entire score akin to that of a book musical, where songs advanced the plot and sprang organically from the action and infused the entire scene with a bolt of additional energy, passion and intensity. I wanted the Caribbean theme to unite each of these songs, like in a Disney film, with songs like Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s “Under the Sea,” a perfect combination of children’s music and musical theatre with Caribbean sensibilities. It was clear that Andrew Broderick is a talented dancer and I wished that there had been more opportunity for him to really have a chance to show off.
In all, El Numero Uno reminds me of the lesson that Chef Trenton teaches to Uno in the show: it may take significantly longer, it may require far more work and concentration, and it may not always be a whole lot of fun, but don’t rush or skimp on the ingredients, demand excellence from them, or else no matter how you put it all together, you’ll never get the perfect soup.
El Numero Uno plays at Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People until February 25, 2010. It’s recommended for ages 8 and up. 165 Front Street East, Toronto. Tickets: $10 – $20. All prices include GST; service charges extra. Group rates available. Box Office: 416.862.2222. Schedule and online tickets: lktyp.ca.