theatre

  • Over the past weekend, we learned the sad news of the passing of pioneering playwright, poet and novelist Ntozake Shange. Her landmark choreopoem, “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf,” has profoundly touched, and spoken to, generations of black women.

    Shange died in her sleep, on the morning of October 27, 2018, at the assisted living facility where she resided in Bowie, MD after having previously suffered multiple strokes. Her sister, Ifa Bayeza, was quoted as saying: “It’s a huge loss for the world. I don’t think there’s a day on the planet when there’s not a young woman who discovers herself through the words of my sister.”

    Earlier this year, AfroToronto.com caught up with renowned African-Canadian thespian and theatre director, Djanet Sears. We discussed her work directing Soulpepper Theatre's staging of "for colored girls" last year at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, on the occasion of her Outstanding Direction nomination at the 39th Annual Dora Mavor Moore Awards.

    Sears recalls seeing the original production of "for colored girls" on Broadway as a university student. It was an incredibly fulfilling time for her as, within a period of a few years, she had read and seen the two most successful Broadway productions by African-American women at the time -- namely: Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (the first black play that Sears had ever read; which debuted on Broadway in 1959) and Ntozake Shange's “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf” (premiering on Broadway's Booth Theatre in 1976).

    "It just struck me. "for colored girls" was a production that really struck me to the very core," as Sears shared. 

    "It spoke about black women's experiences from a range of perspectives. It wasn't that black women were one thing, a monolith, and we all experienced the same thing. These stories that the play tells were being told from the very soul of the writer. Because of the quality of the writing, and the poetry of the writing, the stories reached across the stage into the audience and just penetrated the hearts of the audience."

    Indeed, at the time that this play was first produced, and first written, this kind of work was very rarely done. Its multi-narrative format was thought extravagant. The play told many stories, 20 in total, in the form of a series of poems complemented by choreographed movement and set to a musical background.

    It's a choreopoem. A story being told through movement and sound.

    Seven nameless black women, only identified by their assigned colours (lady in red, lady in orange, lady in yellow, lady in green, lady in blue, lady in brown, and lady in purple) spoke of powerful themes like sexual and domestic violence, abortion and abandonment.

    On staging the show in Toronto and its continued relevance

    When Sears got the call in the autumn of 2016 from Soulpepper Theatre's then artistic director, suggesting to work together on staging the play in Toronto, Sears did not hesitate.

    "Even though the play premiered over 40 years ago, we're still just scratching the surface," said Sears.

    While she's a believer that the arc of history bends toward justice, and this bend might be long, Sears points out that "we have to stay committed to it."

    "Things change, and some things have changed, but then they move back. It's often one step forward and two steps back.... I also think that what's a bit different nowadays is that I believe more men are joining the women in supporting their stories, their rights to have those stories, and to tell those stories."

    "Still, systemic barriers to full access continue to exist which prevent women from telling their own truths and to be believed. How may women directors are there? How many women producers? How many women are executives?"

    Despite these challenges, Sears is optimistic about the future of inclusive storytelling. "I think there are more talented theatre creatives and actors and of colour than ever before," she said. "What I worry about is the gatekeepers who are in control of the arts sector."

    What's needed is the establishment of a policy that ensures constant access for creatives of colour.

    "What happens is, it often depends on who's there. If they're inclusionary, we'll be included. If they're not, that's a decade lost to us participating in that theatre. We need proper policy that's people-resistant."

    "We are fully integrated in society and we want to be fully integrated in society as reflected in our arts. We also have cultural nuances that are beautiful."

  • Oraltorio: A Theatrical Mixtape -- anObsidian Theatre production, presented in partnership withSoulpepper Theatre -- written and performed by multidisciplinarian spoken word artist Motion, and infused by enthralling musical soundscapes of DJ L’Oqenz, is currently running at theYoung Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane) until October 20, 2018.

    This is the story of two Toronto-bred young women, Motion as the B-Girl and L’Oqenz as the DJ, navigating through life and their womanhood in search of agency. Their quest is set through the background and history of the beats, music, rhymes and song lyrics that have come to shape their identity.

    Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, Oraltorio is set in an Afrofuturistc aesthetic realm where the worlds of spoken word, emceeing and DJing coalesce. The visually stimulating theatrical universe created by André du Toit’s lighting, and grounded in the hip hop-inspired catacombs of Jackie Chau’s set, add unmistakable character to the show's auditory journey.

    "The show was born out of a lot of my own, as well as L’Oqenz's, experiences with music and growing up around music, around the evolution of hip hop, and being inspired by black women artists and musicians," as Motion recently explained to AfroToronto.com. "As well as the role that music has played in the lives and history of people from the African diaspora. The collective experience of a people."

    Digging back into the roots

    Delving a bit deeper into the origins of Oraltorio, Motion recalls a collaboration show she worked on years ago for the Urban Music Awards, called Musik, where she charted the evolution of the connections between the griots of West Africa all the way to the emcees of hip hop culture.

    "That piece inspired me to continue writing a larger work that would blend soundscape with words and with theatre -- to look at the role that music and sound have played as tools of resistance against silencing in black women's lives," as Motion explained. "I would say that's definitely the genesis of Oraltorio."

    DJ L'Oqenz (back) and MOTION. Photo: Cesar Ghisilieri

    She soon joined forces with DJ L'Oquenz after this epiphany to work together on creating the soundscape and the music for it. "We really thought about the concept of a theatrical mixtape," she said. The idea was to dramatize a mixtape where the iconic sounds from the DJ culture they both grew up with would be overlayered with soundbites, sung or spoken, from different flavours and stories.

    "What we've grown to understand through this creative process is just the fluidity of how this work can live. It can live with one mic and a DJ; and it can live in its full production experience with the visuals and working with choreographers and movement specialists," said Motion. "There's so many different ways and formats through which we've been able to find the story and find how different audiences can experience it."

    As the concept grew from inception to its current form, various versions of Oraltorio saw the light of day over the years in places like b current's Rock.Paper.Sistahz Festival, readings at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre's Rhubard Festival, the Piece of Mine Festival, and its first full production as part of Why Not Theatre's Riser Project -- which took place at the Theatre Centre in 2016.

    Also in 2016, Motion and L'Oquenz had the opportunity to travel to Ghana with the Northern Griots Network to showcase Oraltorio at the Chale Wote Street Art Festival, as well as the Nkabom Literary Festival.

    "Our Ghana experience was great because we actually found ourselves at the birthplace of so much of the musical inspiration that we touch upon in Oraltorio," as Motion shared. They performed to a large audience as part of the closing night of the Chale Wote Festival.

    "To be surrounded and immersed in so much artistic expression was really inspirational. It just deepened our connection to the rhythm of the piece; to the ancestry of Oraltorio. Showing that no matter where you go in the world where you find people of the African diaspora, there are audible ties that connect us [through] the way that we express ourselves. [Be it through] spirituality, though dance, through survival, through protesting disparity, through the quest for freedom."

    "What we also continue to connect to is the cross-generational strength through which, despite how often we are silenced, or our voices are dampened, we find ways to be heard. So Oraltorio is an ode to that resistance."

     

    Show info:

    Oraltorio: A Theatrical Mixtape

    Runs to October 20. $25-$35.
    Young Centre for the Performing Arts
    50 Tank House Lane, Toronto ON, M5A 3C4

    Tickets

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