THE POLISHED HOE adapted from Austin Clarke's novel by Colin Taylor and Alison Sealy-Smith, directed by Taylor (Obsidian/Frank Collymore Hall). At Enwave Theatre (231 Queens Quay West). Opens tonight (Thursday, February 22) and runs to March 4. $10-$30. See Opening, page 70. 416-973-4000.
SCORCHED by Wajdi Mouawad, directed by Richard Rose (Tarragon, 30 Bridgman). In previews, opens Tuesday (February 27) and runs to March 31. Pwyc-$38. See Opening, page 70. 416-531-1827. Rating: NNNNN
Whether nurturing, self-sacrificing, smothering or a combination of things, mother love shapes just about everyone's life.
Two exciting plays opening this week examine the maternal instinct and its ramifications on several generations.
Obsidian Theatre and Frank Collymore Hall (Barbados) premiere a stage version of Austin Clarke's award-winning novel The Polished Hoe, adapted by director Colin Taylor and actor Alison Sealy-Smith. Focusing on the black Mary Mathilda's confession to the murder of a white man on the fictional Caribbean island of Bimshire, the piece is part detective story, part character study.
Wajdi Mouawad's Scorched, presented by the Tarragon, continues the playwright's thematic search on several levels for home and family, begun in Tideline. At its core is Nawal, whom we meet at three different points in her life. Her final request is that her twin children deliver letters to a father and a brother they discover still live.
"I've never shared a character with other actors before," smiles Kelli Fox, who plays the 40-ish Nawal, chronologically set between the performances of Janick Hébert and Nicola Lipman.
"It's curious to sit in rehearsal watching Janick put together her choices and what she's learned about Nawal, for that's my history. I have to carry it around, and then Nicola has to fold us both into the story."
The actor's work isn't different from other parts that require the creation of a character's history, but here the two older Nawals have to keep an eye on what Hébert creates and look for ways to echo the younger Nawal in later life.
Set largely in an unnamed Middle Eastern country beset by civil war, the time-shifting Scorched traces not only Nawal's journey but also that of her twins, Simon and Janine. Searching for her first-born child in the midst of chaos, the determined Nawal becomes an activist and later a prisoner.
"Director Richard Rose sees my Nawal as a Christ figure, forced to be part of life and the war. That's her reality, but she also has to find a way to keep the promise she makes early in the play to be a reasonable woman who finds compassion for her fellow humans and doesn't feed the insanity around her. Nawal is in the crucible.
"But somewhere between the age of 19 and 40, she's learned how to strengthen the muscle that allows her to become coldly factual about what's happening around her," says Fox, a Shaw Festival vet who next appears in Soulpepper's Top Girls. "That muscle's so strong that she can close down her emotional responses."
Even so, Nawal never loses the maternal instinct to search for the son taken from her.
"That drive takes her out of her village, away from all she knows, and sends her on an odyssey to find her son in a war-torn, insanity-ridden country."
The situation is different for Mary Mathilda, the central figure in The Polished Hoe. Her son, Wilberforce, is a world-travelled doctor, but his success is due to the fact that his father is the white plantation manager Bellfeels.
At the start of the tale Mary confesses to Bellfeels's murder, but her explanation for why takes up the entire play. Running through the piece is the subtext of an earlier violation, slavery, whose effect spans generations.
"Mary's story is at one level Mary's peculiar history and on another level a bit of a metaphor for the entire Caribbean," says performer Alison Sealy-Smith (Harlem Duet, The Adventures Of A Black Girl In Search Of God and Cast Iron).
"I had to mint a word to describe Mary's voice: water-sheddedness.
"The story is set in 1952, a decade before the major Caribbean islands gained their independence.
"And though Mary can remember that her great-grandmother was a slave, she can look forward to the time when her son could become prime minister of a black-run and black-owned country. The play is set on that line, between slavery and today's island images of jerk chicken and Bob Marley. It's a time that we don't talk about."
Mary is a fascinating but not entirely pleasant figure that Sealy-Smith feels drawn to create.
"She's full to bursting with secrets and desires that things be other than they are. Mary's an aberration who straddles both worlds, accepted by the white landowners and put on a pedestal by the villagers, but she's not really part of either.
"And I love her contrariness, the way she rebels against categories. She's both oppressor and oppressed, a lady and a whore, and people have a hard time with such contradictions. That's just what drew me to this singular character, both to understand her and to figure out how to play her."
Additional Audio Interview Clips
Alison Sealy-Smith's reasons for doing The Polished Hoe
Kelli Fox on the style of Scorched