Esu Crossing The Middle Passage
Amina Alfred (left), d'bi.young anitafrika and tuku
ESU CROSSING THE MIDDLE PASSAGE by d’bi.young anitafrika (Watah Theatre/Storefront Theatre, 955 Bloor West). Runs to April 17. $25, pwyc April 6, 10 and 13. thestorefronttheatre.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN
It’s been a while since storyteller/performer d’bi.young anitafrika has performed on a Toronto stage. A mesmerizing, thoughtful and passionate theatre artist, she returns with Esu Crossing The Middle Passage, the first show in her new series, the Orisha Trilogy.
Esu, the caretaker of crossroads, is one of the orishas, manifestations of the godhead, who journeyed with the Africans brought to the New World as slaves on the Middle Passage, as that sea voyage is called.
With fellow performers and musicians tuku and Amina Alfred, playwright anitafrika presents a poetic, symbolic and thoroughly dramatic look at the history of slavery in America, with more than the occasional reference to Black Lives Matter.
Starting in the Storefront Theatre lobby, the show takes us into the theatre proper and a world at once specific and emblematic. Using alliterative verse, chant, ritual, dub poetry and movement, the trio of actors exalt Esu as the controller of the crossways, a fork in the road that allows for the possibility of change and choice.
All three are impressive vocalists, navigating the sometimes slippery rhythms of the melodies with ease. Their calling up of the ancestors and eventually rebirthing them is especially impressive.
While the show, choreographed and directed by BaKari I. Lindsay, pays attention to the past – there’s a chronology of laws relating to the treatment of Africans in the New World and an enactment of a slave auction – it also looks at the present, with its percentages of incarcerated non-whites and a litany of black men, beginning with Andrew Loku, killed by police.
Anitafrika also works tales of actual border crossings into the loose narrative. One of the show’s most moving sections is a contemporary black woman’s tale of detention and mistreatment when she travelled from Canada to New York.
The show’s design impressively supports the writing. Rachel Forbes’s set includes a crossroads painted on the floor as well as hanging chains and cuffs, while a series of beams at the rear suggest we’re in the bowels of a slave ship. Melissa Joakim’s lighting, Holly Lloyd’s costumes and Waleed Abdulhamid’s sound add to the show’s sensual quality.
For audience members who know anitafrika’s earlier Sankofa Trilogy, there’s a call-out to the young girl we met there, innocent and loving, who realizes the importance of past generations of women who here literally stand behind her. This little girl asks big questions of her elders, and their answers are upsetting but important.
The lesson she learns from them – as do we – is to make life choices wisely and carefully, with a good head and a good heart. That focus becomes a means to combat racism, sexism, classism and homophobia.
If you stay for the post-show talkback, you’ll hear more about the ideas behind the production and the two later parts of the trilogy, set to premiere in May and August. And do stay: anitafrika is as inspiring and heartfelt a speaker, eager to share and listen, as she is a performer.