Review: The First Stone is a powerful look at violence and reconciliation


The First Stone at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
Makambe K. Simamba (left) and Dorothy A. Atabong photographed by Cylla von Tiedemann

THE FIRST STONE by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard (New Harlem Productions/Great Canadian Theatre Company, presented by Buddies in Bad Times). At Buddies in Bad Times (12 Alexander) until October 23. $10-$70. Rating: NNNN

After unspeakable acts of violence, how can you go on? Can you forgive your oppressors? Is reconciliation with them possible? Or do they only invoke a bloodthirsty need for vengeance, making the cycle continue?

Donna-Michelle St. Bernard confronts these questions in her epic and ambitious new play, The First Stone. Although inspired by the child abductions and decades-long civil war in Uganda – it’s part of St. Bernard’s ongoing 54ology of plays inspired by each of the African countries – The First Stone has universal resonance in our era of racial and historical reckoning. Watching the disturbing story unfold, it’s hard not to think of Canada’s own attempts to address centuries of violence against Indigenous people.

The play centres on an unnamed family living in a lively, inter-connected village. Girl (Makambe K. Simamba, of Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers And Little Brothers) and Boy (Daniel Jelani Ellis), like many siblings, bicker but get along. Boy, who calls himself the “man of the house” because their father is away fighting in a war, happily accompanies his sister to the fresh water pump, even if his hidden agenda is to flirt with local girl Uma (Nawa Nicole Simon).

Meanwhile, their Mom (Dorothy A. Atabong), who is also tending to a baby, is worried about her children’s safety, especially since many have disappeared from the village. She and her sister, Auntie (Uche Ame), suspect their father, Granddad (Michael-Lamont Lytle), a village elder and army leader, is hiding something. But, perhaps because of their gender and status, they choose not to dig deeply – until Boy and Girl are both abducted.

The First Stone at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre
Uche Ama photographed by Cylla von Tiedemann

St. Bernard is working on a broad, epic canvas, and it takes a while for the play to come into focus. The first character to speak is Ancestor (the remarkable actor Tsholo Khalema), who regrets throwing the titular first stone; and for much of the play’s events, he looks on, seeing what his own acts of violence (which are never recounted) have spawned.

But St. Bernard and director Yvette Nolan do a lot to help orient the viewer and provide a Brechtian detachment. Cameron Davis’s projections include titles and synopses of what’s to come. Snatches of dialogue are also projected onto a screen to highlight significant themes.

And Indrit Kasapi’s choreography is an essential element of the show, illustrating everything from the village’s harmony to the brutal, impersonal training of the child soldiers. There’s a chilling moment late in the play when a brutalized Boy and Girl swing machetes, a stark contrast to their more carefree amusements in the play’s opening scenes.

The production gains power, and poses the most intriguing questions, after the siblings leave the child army and return to their village.

Simamba and Ellis make a believable, deeply affecting journey from carefree kids to hollowed-out soldiers, and Simon expresses a lot as a young woman who’s lost her entire family. Ame exudes warmth and empathy as the siblings’ aunt. The only performance that doesn’t work is Lytle’s, whose wooden grandfather character lacks any complexity or even menace.

Buddies in Bad Times, who is presenting the New Harlem Productions/Great Canadian Theatre Company show, has sensitively freed up its Antechamber space for audiences who need time to process the challenging show, complete with resources. Like all thoughtful theatre, this is a show that invites reflection, discussion and further study.




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