if you don't start small, you can't grow. Sounds like decent advice, but Alison Sealy-Smith isn't taking it.The actor and director, artistic director of Obsidian Theatre, launches the company's first mainstage production with Djanet Sears's hugely ambitious work The Adventures Of A Black Girl In Search Of God. It's a co-pro with Nightwood Theatre.
"We've been told by too many people that we should crawl before we walk and start with a small production," says Sealy-Smith with that rich laugh of hers. "That's ridiculous. The 21 people onstage are only a tiny sliver of the talent we have in Canada."
The "we" in this case are Canada's black theatre artists, some of the best of whom are the co-founders of Obsidian -- the name refers to a hard, dark, glassy rock.
"We got tired of complaining and knocking on doors to get our stories told," recalls Sealy-Smith, a Dora Award-winning performer for Sears's lauded Harlem Duet. "We realized that we had enough experience to produce these stories ourselves."
Sure, she says, their shape and the how and where of telling them is still a work-in-progress.
"But there are unquestionably histories and adventures to share, to add to what is Canadian. As a country, we're always engaged in a search for our meaning, and black stories are part of the mix."
With another laugh, Sealy-Smith remembers the first time the founders got together to talk about a potential company. The ebullient Sandi Ross asked each of them to identify where they were from.
""Not a touchy-feely evening,' I groaned to myself. But then I heard a list that was a microcosm of the black diaspora. We were from Africa, England, Jamaica -- and every little island in between -- Winnipeg, Halifax, all drawn together to celebrate our common ancestry."
Sears's play is a logical place to start. The title -- unashamedly appropriated by Sears to tell her own tale -- plays off George Bernard Shaw's philosophical story The Adventure Of The Black Girl In Her Search For God.
The result is a multi-layered narrative set in Ontario's Negro Creek and centring on Rainey Crawford, a descendant of black settlers rewarded with land for fighting against the Americans in the War of 1812.
Rainey, in the midst of divorcing a husband she loves, is paralyzed by her fear of family deaths recent and imminent and can't turn to her faith for comfort.
Sealy-Smith, preparing to play Rainey, has ventured into similarly complex emotional territory before.
She burned up the stage as Billie, Othello's first wife, in Harlem Duet, forced into "functioning madness" when her husband leaves her for a white mistress.
"Neither Billie nor Rainey is a victim, but, rather, a strong, intelligent woman in a vulnerable position, almost totally screwed up -- but not quite -- by what she's going through."
Exploring the African-Canadian theatrical aesthetic is part of Obsidian's mandate. Sears, who also directs, has a vision that marries western theatre tradition to holistic African drama, a tradition that combines music, sound, dance and storytelling.
"But Obsidian's intended audience is diverse," she adds. "The black community will see an aspect of itself reflected through the lens of these shows, but we don't aim at a narrow audience demographic." She adds pointedly, "It would be a pity if only Danes could appreciate Hamlet." email@example.com
THE ADVENTURES OF A BLACK GIRL IN SEARCH OF GOD written and directed by Djanet Sears, with Alison Sealy-Smith, Walter Borden, Barbara Barnes-Hopkins, David Collins, Lili Francks, Herb Johnson, Jackie Richardson and Michael Spencer-Davis. Presented by Nightwood Theatre and Obsidian Theatre in association with Harbourfront Centre at the du Maurier Theatre (231 Queen's Quay West). Opens tonight (Thursday, February 7) and runs to February 23, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Wednesday and Sunday 2:30 pm. $20-$40, February 8 gala $75-$100. 416-973-4000