Photo: NAC English Theatre
The English Theatre at the NAC has opened their season with a production of “The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God,” written and directed by Djanet Sears. It’s the story of Rainey, a doctor, her husband Michael, a preacher, and her elderly father Ben. “Adventures . . .” deals with Rainey’s inability to accept her daughter’s death and Ben’s attempts to uphold the town’s black history.
We who live near the US/Canada border and go back and forth often tend to think of ourselves as pretty similar. However sometimes there are striking differences in cross-border sensibilities. One example is Newfie humor – Americans just don’t get it. The subject matter of this play is another. Americans have been seeing plays about race relations and black history since the 1970s, for example August Wilson’s brilliant “Century Cycle,” ten plays that chart the African-American experience throughout the 20th century. There’s also Alvin Ailey’s iconic piece “Revelations,” choreographed in 1960. In “Adventures . . .,” the cast marches to protest graffiti on their church wall. In the US Deep South, black churches are burned down. All this contributes to my viewpoint that “Adventures . . .” says nothing new.
That said, “Adventures . . .” is another example of problems with a playwright and co-composer directing their own work. The ensemble songs, although beautifully sung thanks to Music Director Andrew Craig, are all too long especially “The Angels Are Singing.” Although the choreography is well-performed, Choreographer Vivine Scarlett was obviously very greatly influenced by Alvin Ailey and uses some of his actual steps from “Revelations.” When it takes till Act II to realize the ensembles’ waving arms in the pit are the river, (which become very distracting, by the way), and you don’t know they’re supposed to be ancestors without reading the program notes, something’s wrong.
Then there’s the casting, perhaps the most important part of the director’s job. Neither Lucinda Davis as Rainey nor Quincy Armorer as Michael show us the complexity of the characters or provoke empathy from us. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the play, the direction, or the actors. The cast stand-out is Walter Borden as Ben, by turns funny, touching, stubborn, and wise. Lili Franks as Ivy and Rudy Webb as Bert are also very good. Paul Rainville is just fine in 5 roles and also plays a couple of rather strange instruments.
Astrid Janson’s set and costumes are fine, but Jason Hand’s lighting is a bit murky and the unnecessary use of a star drop too much of a cliché. Peter Cerone’s sound is excellent especially the river water, but I could have done without the urination.
As for Ms. Sears’ staging, I found the Act II entrance through the house gimmicky. The penultimate scene of the ceremonial washing of the body made a wonderful and moving stage picture, but again went on so long I stopped caring. It would benefit the production for someone to do some judicious pruning, as it runs 3 hours with intermission. There are a lot of good elements in this production, but it has a ponderous and halting feeling. “Adventures . . .” never flows smoothly or quite comes together.
The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God – NAC English Theatre/Centaur Theatre Company co-production in association with Black Theatre Workshop runs through Nov. 7