Review: Another Africa (Canadian Stage and Volcano Theatre)

Canadian Stage opens its 2011-12 season with Volcano Theatre’s Another Africa.

Another Africa brings together a cast, crew and creative team from over a dozen countries to create a theatrical dialogue between Africa and the West, and is also an exhilarating start to the Canadian Stage season.

The production is the end-result of a series of workshops beginning in 2007 and first appeared at the 2010 Luminato Festival as The Africa Trilogy where it garnered raves from critics and audiences alike.

Initially billed as a trilogy, a prologue piece was cut after the first preview performances in favour of a short choral reading introduction by the ensemble so the show is now essentially two one-act plays. While I’m curious as to why the creative team chose to replace the prologue, the two pieces that remain provide an ample evening of theatre.

Another Africa is in turns compelling, funny and thought-provoking. I really appreciate the fact that both plays explore complex issues in an insightful and intelligent way without being didactic or sentimental.

The first piece, Shine Your Eye is written by Binyavanga Wainaina and directed by Ross Manson. It takes place in an Internet scam office in Lagos, Nigeria and tells the story of a young woman, Gbene Beka (Dienye Waboso), a computer hacker who is at a crossroads in her life and must decide between a future in Africa and a move to the West.

Beka is said to be the daughter of a “great man” and political leader in Nigeria and is implored to take up her father’s cause. Though never referred to by name, from the details it’s likely Beka’s father is based on Ken Saro-Wiwa, the outspoken Ogoni environmental activist hanged after a trial by a Nigerian military largely funded by the Royal Dutch Shell company to protect its Nigerian oil interests.

Beka also chats over Skype every day with a friend, Doreen (Ordena Stephens-Thompson), in Toronto. Their relationship becomes increasingly intimate and Doreen offers to sponsor Beka for immigration to Canada.

Beka is a stand-in for a generation of young Africans, increasingly urban, educated and disenfranchised. The tension builds throughout the course of the piece as she is increasingly torn between her two possible futures.

Dienye Waboso delivers a pitch-perfect performance as Gbene Beka. She captivates the audience from the moment she sets foot on stage and she’s really able to convey the character’s sense of conflict.

I really enjoy how the production incorporates song and dance elements in a way that, although not entirely realistic, feels completely organic and really conveys the youthful exuberance of Beka and her young colleagues.

I’m also impressed by the exceptional production design. Thomas Ryder-Payne’s sound design perfectly balances the ambient effects without drowning out the dialogue. Momme Hinrichs and Torge Møler’s multimedia/interactive video creates rich visual effects while remaining balanced and appropriate to the story and avoiding the common trap of multimedia where it comes off feeling gimmicky.

The second play of the evening is Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God, written by Roland Schimmelpfennig and directed by Liesl Tommy.

We meet two couples reuniting at a dinner party. One couple, Carol and Martin (Maev Beaty and Tom Barnett) has recently returned from a six-year stint working in a hospital in an unnamed African country in the midst of the HIV/AIDS pandemic which is estimated to claim 5000 lives on the African continent every day.

The other couple, Frank and Liz (Tony Nappo and Kristen Thomson) has settled into the domestic monotony of suburban life complete with a house, a car, a kid, and likely a white picket fence as well.

Each couple looks at the other with envy while questioning the choices they made for themselves. The initially cordial atmosphere of the gathering eventually dissolves as the couples bicker and fight amongst themselves and with each other.

The play uses an interesting device where the action freezes and one-by-one each character breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly, in these freezes we sometimes flash forward or back in the text and lines of dialogue are often repeated for emphasis.

While flying with heady emotions the play unfolds with the sharp timing and humour that often gives it the feel of a farce. The direction and performances really bring out many laugh-out-loud moments throughout the play despite its serious subject matter.

All four actors are phenomenal. This is truly an ensemble performance as the cast’s timing needs to be so precise for the piece to work and the timing of the four actors is spot-on.

Since Matthew Jocelyn took over the reins as Artistic Director at Canadian Stage he has sometimes been criticized for what some see as high-minded, overly arty and inaccessible programming. What I like about Another Africa is the fact that it is high-minded theatre, both plays are layered and speak to a variety of important themes, but at the same time both plays are also immensely fun and compelling pieces of theatre and are completely accessible. I hope this show is a hint of what is to come for the rest of the Canadian Stage season.

Details:

  • September 26 through October 22, 2011
  • Performances run Monday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with matinees on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. and Saturday at 2 p.m.
  • At the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front Street East).
  • Tickets from $22 to $99 are available online, by phone at 416.368.3110 or in person at the box office.
  • Discount tickets are available through the Sun Life Financial Arts Accessibility Program.
  • For details visit www.canadianstage.com.

Photo credit:

– Photo of Milton Barnes and Dienye Waboso in Shine Your Eye, Another Africa. Photo by John Lauener

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