Photo: Black Theatre Workshop
The struggle to find and hold onto that hope, love and faith impels the action and characters of Adventures, an ambitious and, in the production that opens the new NAC English Theatre season, ultimately unsatisfying show that blends drama and comedy with song and movement, the ever-present spectre of death amid the bloom of life, and the story of a family and its community.
The play (its name comes from a George Bernard Shaw short story) premiered in 2002, launching Toronto’s black Obsidian Theatre company. It was then picked up for several months by Mirvish Productions. The current revival, directed by Sears as was the première, played Montreal’s Centaur Theatre before coming to the NAC.
With its cast of 22, the play is set in a 200-year-old black community in southern Ontario. At its heart are Rainey, a young black woman played by Lucinda Davis, and her aging father Abendigo.
Death and loss track Rainey. Her young daughter died three years ago from meningitis. Rainey’s faith is gone, as is her marriage. Her father is unwell. A medical doctor, she’s no longer practising her profession and has taken up eating cigarette ash and gobbling aspirin. She is, in a word, adrift.
Abendigo is anything but. Played with incisive folksy profundity by Borden, he’s the ringleader of a gang of oldsters known as Lotsa Soap. The name stands for Liberation of Thoroughly Seditious Artifacts Symbolizing the Oppression of African People, and their mission is to reverse a town council decision to rename nearby Negro Creek Road because its moniker has been deemed politically incorrect.
As part of its reclamation drive — reclamation of everything from cultural identity to spiritual belief being one of the themes that, like the creek, courses through the play — the gang liberates those hideous little black jockeys and other lawn ornaments from neighbouring homes. Particularly demeaning, the ornaments are a reminder that, despite Rainey’s blinders-on assertion that “This is Canada!”, racism percolates here as well as below the border. Funny, the ornament scenes also sting. Rainey, needless to say, is not amused at her father’s goings on.
Woven through these two halves of Sears’s plot, halves which often feel yoked rather than organically linked, are the ensemble’s movement (Vivine Scarlett did the lissome choreography) and the gorgeous a cappella songs composed by Sears and Alejandra Nunez. It’s here that Sears’s drawing on African storytelling traditions shines. Legendary blues and gospel singer Jackie Richardson, one of the Lotsa Soap gang, also sings, the joyful, show-stopping scene in which she leads a church choir igniting audience applause on opening night.
Problem is that Davis — or at least Davis as directed by Sears, directing your own creation not being always desirable — is unconvincing as the existentially conflicted and emotionally convulsed Rainey. Her big, emotive scenes are too tamped-down, and we get little feeling of the turmoil beneath the surface. That leaves Quincy Armorer, who plays her soon-to-be-divorced husband Michael, struggling to give us a sense of the depth of the couple’s complex relationship.
On a larger scale, the intended contrast between Rainey’s serious story and the lighter-hearted Lotsa Soap stuff is also diluted, leaving each half the poorer for it.
Also problematic: the choreography, while lovely to watch as it depicts the creek, the sky, the community’s ancestral past, distracts us from the very storyline of which it’s part, and Rainey’s plight gets almost lost. Call it too much of a good thing.
At its heart celebratory and optimistic, Adventures never coalesces as it’s intended to do. Think of it as an adventure still in progress.
It continues until Nov. 7. Tickets: NAC box office & Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca
NAC English Theatre/Centaur Theatre Company co-production in association with Black Theatre Workshop
At the NAC Theatre