CAST IRON by Lisa Codrington, directed by ahdri zhina mandiela, with Alison Sealy-Smith. Presented by Nightwood in association with Obsidian at the Tarragon Extra Space (30 Bridgman). Previews begin Saturday (February 12), opens Wednesday (February 16) and runs to March 13, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday and Sunday (except February 19) 2:30 pm. $16-$33, Sunday pwyc. 416-531-1827.
Actor Alison Sealy-Smith has a curious problem.
The sole performer in Lisa Codrington's Cast Iron, Sealy-Smith finds creating the work's multiple characters hard because they're so familiar to her. Sounds backwards, doesn't it?
Actually no, she says.
"It's usual to approach roles from the outside, mining the script and looking for subtext," says Sealy-Smith, herself from Barbados. "When I'm working with Shakespeare, even the punctuation gives you some clues. Here, I don't have to work that much, for these people live deep inside me. Now it's a matter of sharing them with the audience."
Cast Iron, presented by Nightwood Theatre, focuses on Libya Atwell, born in Barbados but now living, at age 78, in a Winnipeg nursing home. Talk about a change of scenery.
Libya's story spills out when a visitor from her past, her nephew, comes seeking news of his deceased mother.
"All the characters are seen through Libya's eyes," Sealy-Smith offers in the rehearsal hall as the winter sun spills in. "It's comforting to have her as an anchor in a play that covers decades and several generations of characters, but I have to adjust how much to inhabit a 24-year-old virile man, for instance, at the same time that I'm in the body of a 78-year-old woman. And I have to remember that when I want to physicalize them, a woman that old doesn't move very well."
Sealy-Smith has a proven track record of sharing her gifts. Founding artistic director of Obsidian Theatre (associate producer of Cast Iron with Nightwood), she starred in the company's first production, The Adventures Of A Black Girl In Search Of God. Earlier, she copped a Dora for another play by Djanet Sears, Harlem Duet. A real powerhouse, she's done classical work with Stratford and CanStage and is also a dramaturge and director.
In this show, she and director ahdri zhina mandiela are playing with different levels of characterization.
"At times Libya's quite outside, pretending she's being someone else. At others she's more inhabited by someone, and sometimes the other figure takes over and she has no control at all. It's a wonderful acting opportunity - keeping track of those levels."
The play began life as a show that Codrington, then a student at Ryerson, performed at the Fringe. Nightwood got involved, including it in the Write From The Hip program for young playwrights and also in Groundswell. Sealy-Smith's been both dramaturge and performer for the last several workshops.
"The story's now less about an actor playing lots of neat characters as Libya remembers them. The script is more compressed and clearer in its narrative, richer and more textured."
For all her work onstage and behind the scenes, Sealy-Smith's rarely had a chance to play a Bajan character. This year turns out, in fact, to be a Caribbean year for Obsidian, which is also presenting Jamaican Trevor Rhone's Two Can Play in the summer.
How does she think audiences will deal with Libya's Bajan speech rhythms?
"You don't examine your own language very often, and I don't often speak it, but rather carry it in my pocket as an accent," she adds, slipping intentionally into its open vowels.
"Usually when I'm playing a character from the Caribbean I use either a Jamaican accent or something I call trans-Caribbean," she laughs. "It hits everywhere from Jamaica to Guyana and every island in between.
"Here, I know I have to capture the audience from the beginning, not wait for them to get the Bajan rhythms.
"I'm doing my part by slowing it down at the start and enunciating more than usual, but later I'm going to speed up and hope they'll go with me.
"And they should, because I believe in the craft of what Lisa's written. The emotions and the characters are clear, and Libya herself provides a strong drive."