ahdri zhina mandiela’s new play, who knew grannie, is and isn’t a play in the same way that mandiela is and isn’t a playwright. In her career she has applied her inherently rhythmic voice to spoken word, film, theatre and other forms from a firmly dub-rooted place. Her exploration of self and culture are manifest in the application of afro-caribbean oral traditions to contemporary forms. The poet establishes the further evolution of her form with this dub aria produced by Obsidian Theatre in association with Factory Theatre.
mandiela recently directed Pamela Mordechai’s El Numero Uno for Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People, delving into her childhood to inspire the staging of a good mas which simultaneously evoked ragmen, jabjab and carnival of all kinds in their terrifying glory. She takes up the role of director again, guiding her aria through curious corridors and choral trips that will elevate the audience into the inexpressible heartspace of four individuals’ journey home to pay respects to their departed matriarch.
who knew grannie is a flight through psyche that recounts memory - not as incidents actually happened, but as memory actually occurs. The play follows synaptic links and sentimental signposts to draw out the depths of intergenerational linkage, while unfolding layers of familial diffusion that are all too familiar in the West Indian diaspora.
Grannie’s place in the family is inviolate. Is grannie mek di rules and is grannie ah enforce dem. Even those grandchildren dispersed throughout the world are tied by a thread of discipline, standards and expectations, echoing back to themselves oft ingested aphorisms from early days. Guidance not to be discarded, despite tyetye’s evident willingness to skirt legalities; despite likklebit’s feeling of foreignness at home; despite kris’s disapproved romantic choices and velma’s adamant independence.
In this play grannie’s grown brood call back to their own simpler selves using games, chants and rhymes taught by grannie to inculcate values and offer connection. There is a mutual promise of constancy in the repetition of “paddle mi own koonoo” and their assertions of “we doing good, large outta grass,” reiterate the debt of success each child owes for sacrifices made on their behalf.
And in the midst of this mental landscape, viewed through emotion’s steam-obscured windows, there is the absolute clarity of an adult lens on childhood learning. The recollection of a frivolous game is accompanied by historical context. The folkloric character of kunnu, a village fool prototype, is revealed to be a thin veil over one slave’s story of the middle passage journey. In this single anecdote is the much larger recollection of a people whose ancestral stories, rituals and language s are not dead or absent, but have been transmuted by the necessities of survival, transmuted into games and music like later songs of escape through the underground railroad. A code becomes apparent and the entire aria assumes a new, more critically informative role for a contemporary diasporic Caribbean audience.
This world premiere takes place from March 18-April 4 at Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street.