ROCK.PAPER.SISTAHZ 3 a festival of original one-act plays by black theatre artists. Presented by b current at Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace (16 Ryerson). Plays run in rep to May 23, Wednesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $15, festival pass $35. 416-504-7529. Schedule at www.bcurrent.ca
DEATH AND THE KING'S HORSEMAN by Wole Soyinka, directed by Ronald Weihs, with Donald Carr, Ayo Adewumi, Tony Adah, Sistah Lois Jacob, Ian Morfitt and Catherine Harrison. Presented by AfriCan Theatre Ensemble and Artword at Artword (75 Portland). Previews begin May 14, opens May 18 and runs to May 30, Tuesday-Saturday 8:15 pm, matinee Sunday 4 pm. $15-$25. 416-366-7723 ext 290.
You probably know that february is Black History Month. But May is shaping up to be Black Theatre Month, with three companies offering works about different aspects of the black experience. Obsidian Theatre, in collaboration with Factory, is staging George Boyd's Consecrated Ground, a recent script that looks at the loss of a black community in Nova Scotia. AfriCan Theatre Ensemble has joined forces with Artword to present Death And The King's Horseman, a 1975 play by Nigerian Pulitzer Prize winner Wole Soyinka. And b current stages its third annual rock.paper. Sistahz festival of new one-acts, many in workshop, by up-and-coming black artists from various disciplines.
"It was AfriCan's Modupe Olaogun who referred to May as Black Future Month," recalls b current's ahdri zhina mandiela. "The companies realize the importance of looking at the legacies we've inherited as well as our current identities, of standing on the shoulders of those who came before us."
"There are a number of us who have had years of theatrical experience," says Donald Carr, who's playing Elesin, the king's horseman, in the Soyinka play. "We've been germinating underground. But now we've developed to the point where we're reaching to each other" - his gesture illustrates his words - "like fingers on a hand, finally being connected to a body of work that we're characterizing for ourselves."
Events over the past years, like rock.paper.Sistahz and the AfriCanadian Playwrights Festival, and the growing strength of companies like Obsidian, AfriCan and the newly formed Theatre Africa are an index of the richness of black Canadian theatre.
And don't forget the splendid local writers whose stylistically diverse works we've enjoyed in production, among them Djanet Sears, Andrew Moodie, mandiela, George Elliott Clarke and younger playwrights like Trey Anthony, Nicole Stamp, Raven Dauda, Ngozi Paul and d'bi.young. Add other works from both the black diaspora and Africa itself and you've got an impressive group of shows.
Rock.paper.Sistahz contributes to that list, this year with 10 shows, including jazz vocalist Sharron McLeod's The Merry Dancer, about Hollywood performer Abbey Lincoln; That's The Way Love Goes, by Kimahli Powell (who also produces the festival), a look at hiphop culture and stereotypes; and a full production of Carol Anderson's tale about a father-daughter reconciliation, After All.
Death And The King's Horseman, based on a 1945 incident when a British governor tried to stop a Yoruba ritual in a Nigerian town, moves between prosaic dialogue and heightened language, adding music, dance and pageantry as well.
Dancer/writer/actor Carr - who two decades ago was to have been in a production of the same play that never materialized - sees his role as a difficult one.
"Elesin is one of those giants who, through no weakness of their own, cause disruption. I think of this lustful, vital man as someone who makes the effort to fulfill his part in life and fails gloriously. But in that failure, he shows us how not to fail."
Carr and mandiela get into an easy, expressive dialogue over the course of the interview. They've known and worked with each other since the late 70s. Both acknowledge the importance of the networking and sharing of resources and ideas among black artists, and of the collaboration with companies like Factory and Artword.
"But it's especially important to look at links in the works as well," affirms mandiela with quiet passion. "Black theatre now is particularly exciting because it references the whole canon of early work, not just from outside Canada but also the work of groups like Theatre Fountainhead and Black Theatre Canada.
"Soyinka uses cultural and political aspects of his day that still have significance now. Writers like Andrew, Carol and Djanet are holding frames of reference from the past or gather from the shards lying around.
"These building blocks allow us to use our past and present to define and redefine ourselves, carrying us into the future."