Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s mix of spoken word, rap and stories could use tightening and a stronger throughline
SOUND OF THE BEAST by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard (Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace, 16 Ryerson). Runs to May 7. $17-$38. passemuraille.ca. See listing. Rating: NNN
This new long-form spoken word and rap show from playwright, freestyler and TPM’s Emcee in Residence Donna-Michelle St. Bernard gathers together several different narrative strands. But it’s still in search of a frame or throughline.
St. Bernard alternates between fragments of the story of imprisoned Tunisian rapper Weld El 15, poignant tales from her own lived experience as a Black artist in Toronto interacting with police, interesting historical tidbits (like the origin of the middle finger gesture) and projected pre-recorded video appearances from artist and activist Tamyka Bullen who communicates bits of her own autobiography about growing up deaf in a Guyanese family in sign language.
St. Bernard intersperses these sections with original raps performed to tracks that harken back to 90s NYC hip-hop artists like KRS-One (the show’s title is a reference to his 1993 track Sound Of Da Police) and Notorious B.I.G.
In her stories and raps, St. Bernard effectively relates the oppressive feeling of police authority in Toronto as experienced by Black people. Whether it’s being slow-cruised or questioned while postering for a gig late at night, or badgered by cops at Pride, St. Bernard’s stories convey the personal and emotional side of experiencing these everyday injustices.
One bit begins with the story of how a well-meaning friend once made a comment connecting her skin colour and youthful appearance. St. Bernard then explains how she educated this friend about the racist origins of the phrase “Black don’t crack” in American slave culture and its offensive rather than complimentary effect.
At nearly two hours (billed as 100 minutes but went significantly over that mark in the performance I saw) the show would be more effective if streamlined and organized, or at the very least broken up with an intermission.
The show I saw included an additional dance piece by a performer not credited in the program that was announced only after the initial applause had died down. This fine bit stretched an already long-running show, and should have been integrated into the main performance, or developed separately.
St. Bernard’s strong writing and performing skills are on display here, but this show really needs an overarching narrative or frame to maximize its important message.