DIXON ROAD by Fatuma Adar (Obsidian Theatre/Musical Stage Theatre Company, in association with Canadian Stage). At the High Park Amphitheatre (1873 Bloor West). Runs to June 19. $5-$50. canadianstage.com. Rating: NNN
About a half hour into opening night of the musical Dixon Road at the outdoor High Park Amphitheatre, it started to rain, and after the scene was finished, so did the show. Within a half hour, the production team decided the stage was too wet to continue, but the cast would finish the first act in concert style, and then, if it was safe enough, perform the second act as usual after the intermission. That’s what happened. It was a long night.
Coincidentally, that interruption was thematically fitting; perseverance is one of the themes in Fatuma Adar’s ambitious, if not quite fully realized, musical about a Somali family’s arduous journey of survival and adaptation.
It’s the early 90s, and the Husseins – father Zaki (Gavin Hope), mother Safiya (Starr Domingue), daughter Batoul (Germaine Konji) and grandmother Halima (Shakura S’Aida) – are thriving in their home country when civil war breaks out. Soon, Zaki, a photographer and aspiring documentarian who has recently been appointed to a higher rank in the government, flees to Canada, reluctantly leaving his mother Halima behind. Once the situation settles down, he believes, they’ll return.
Things are more difficult than Zaki expects when they land in Toronto, however. They’re temporarily staying in a cramped apartment with family friend Abdi (Michael-Lamont Lytle), a taxi driver, and his son Yousef (Danté Prince), while Zaki looks unsuccessfully for a job. (He thinks he’s above working as a taxi driver himself.) Meanwhile, Batoul, who scribbled intense poetry in her journal in Somalia, suddenly sees a world of opportunity available for women in this new country, so she decides to follow her dream of becoming a writer. But with her family struggling financially, should she perhaps choose a more “practical” profession?
The heart of the show seems to be the contrasting aspirations of father and daughter. How do the sacrifices of the first generation of immigrants affect their offspring? It’s a rich theme, and one that millions of people can relate to. Adar, a hugely promising talent (she wrote the show’s book, lyrics and music), includes precise and authentic details in her story, from the culture clash involved in moving to a new place, where the givens of one’s former life don’t apply (“the only tribe you belong to is Black,” Abdi tells Zaki in Toronto), to the amusing spectacle of celebrating Eid al-Fitr at a Chuck E Cheese-like novelty restaurant.
It feels like Adar doesn’t quite know which storylines to focus on, however. It takes a while for us to grasp Batoul’s desires (the lack of an “I want” song in the show’s disorienting beginning doesn’t help). Also, doesn’t she go to school? Have friends? And despite the title, we don’t get a proper sense of the thriving neighbourhood in which she and her family live. There’s a rich musical scene between three generations of Hussein women in the second act, but knowing very little about their lives before doesn’t allow it to resonate emotionally as it could.
The songs are an energetic, eclectic mix of hip-hop, Afro funk and R&B, with some traditional Somali melodies underscoring things. At times, however, the styles of music don’t match the characters; it’s fitting for Batoul to spill out her emotions in a hip-hop song, but when her dignified, proud father does the same, they feel jarring.
The lyrics, likewise, are an uneven mix of sharp poetic observations and on-the-nose statements (“Who are we without a home?”).
Brian Dudkiewicz’s set provides an effective contrast between the vivid colours of Somalia and the grey tones of Toronto. The way director Ray Hogg uses wooden frames – a key element in the design – can be clever (tilted one way, they become taxi cabs) and literal (frames for Zaki’s photographs) but also overworked and confusing (are they airport revolving doors at one point?).
Hogg gets fine performances from his cast, especially Hope, whose growing frustration is palpable – he seems to physically diminish as his prospects dry up – and Lytle, whose bluesy first-act number is a highlight. Domingue and S’Aida both have rich voices, and I hope their roles are sharpened in any future iterations.
As for the multi-talented Konji, with her clear, sweet, powerful voice and firm dramatic instincts, she creates a rich, confident, conflicted young woman caught between cultures. That role, and Konji’s performance, are a thrilling addition to the musical theatre scene.