FALLEN ANGEL AND THE DEVIL CONCUBINE by the GroundWork Collective, directed by ahdri zhina mandiela, with John Blackwood and Rhoma Spencer. Presented by b current and Theatre Archipelago at the Theatre Centre (1087 Queen West). Previews begin Friday (May 19), opens Wednesday (May 24) and runs to June 4, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday and May 31 at 2 pm. See Opening, page 93. $25, May 31 matinee $10, Tuesday pwyc (suggested $10 minimum), previews $10 and $5 (May 21). 416-525-2994. Rating: NNNNN
Rhoma Spencer admits that she's drawn to women living on the edge.
In the solo shows Mad Miss and stori ya, the Trinidad-born actor put an impressive stamp on marginalized characters who live in a world that combines reality and fantasy.
"It's really about playing different aspects of insanity," confides Spencer on a break from her latest project, Fallen Angel And The Devil Concubine, co-presented by b current and her own company, Theatre Archipelago.
"In characters like these you have to explore manic depression and schizophrenia, but not come across as a cliché."
In Fallen Angel, created by Jamaica's GroundWork Collective, Spencer plays Lettie, an elderly black woman squatting in a dilapidated house, determined to use her bundles of legal documents to prove the house is rightfully hers. But she has competition from Katie, a white senior with airs who, like Lettie, has trouble sorting truth from fiction.
Audiences might be surprised to see John Blackwood as Katie, the white character who speaks in cultured British tones when she wants to impress Lettie but falls into island dialect when her emotions well up.
"I simply couldn't find a white Canadian actor other than John, who was raised in Jamaica, who could handle the Jamaican language. We've seen male actors playing women believably - like William Hutt's Lady Bracknell - so I had no problem letting John take on the role.
"After all, we're two actors telling the story of two women. It doesn't matter, if it's done convincingly, if the storytellers are male or female."
At the suggestion of director ahdri zhina mandiela, the play's been moved from its original Kingston, Jamaica, locale to Toronto.
"We're setting it in 60s Parkdale, at a time when things were starting to change there," says Spencer, a respected Trinidadian theatre artist who came to Toronto in 1999 to do post-grad work at York.
"In our research, we learned that the building of the Gardiner transformed the community."
The play explores the economic and social divide between the two women, and Spencer sees it also as a larger picture, a statement on post-colonialism at a time when English Caribbean countries were receiving their freedom.
"It looks at what happens to the white people, those with money, and also how the suddenly empowered blacks deal with newfound independence."
In this version of the play, Lettie is Trinidadian and Katie Jamaican. From Spencer's point of view, the blend speaks to Toronto's pan-Caribbean culture, one she wants to address in her company's productions.
Moving the play from Jamaica to Toronto, in fact, adds extra spin to the characters' bemused plight.
"They have a double whammy of dispossession," nods the actor, who spent two years as resident director with the AfriCan Theatre Ensemble. "Not only are they distanced from everyday reality, but they're also uprooted from their homelands."