Celebrating Black History Month, Théâtre français brings Espoir/Espwa to the Toronto stage
In Espoir/Espwa, produced for Black History Month by Théâtre français de Toronto, three women explore their different connections to Haiti along the spectrum of diaspora: Nadège was born in Canada but feels the loss of the land she’s never known, treasuring a jar of earth from Haiti given to her by her grandmother; Céleste has been away for 20 years and now returned, her Canadianization interfering with her ability to re-integrate to the culture; and Man Sara gives advice, tells stories, and otherwise administers to her community from her “boutique” shop in a Haitian village, having never left her country.
The story was created by the three performers, Edwige Jean-Pierre, Djennie Laguerre and Carline Zamar, and it’s a cheerful show that includes live music and dancing. The title is the word for “Hope” in both French and Creole, and positivity is embedded throughout.
The thesis of this show is clear in one scene where Nadège is listing all the reasons people have to be afraid of Haiti – kidnappings, earthquakes, etc – and Man Sara shuts her down. Haiti is Haitians, with their music and laughter and hope; Haiti is not sensational news reports, not a charity case.
Serious topics are grappled, but with a light touch. For example, Céleste returns to Haiti with a “white saviour” sort of complex (not that she’s white, she’s just been in Canada too long) as part of an NGO. She wants to raise money with lavish events but won’t listen to what the villagers actually want. Eventually Man Sara’s influence helps her come to terms with her past and her present.
A lot of the humour stems from Nadège’s resentment of Céleste’s journey to a tropical climate while she’s in Toronto winter, and facing the prospect of going even further north for her Master’s thesis research. They communicate through a series of phone calls, and I was a bit confused at first as to the nature of their relationship.
It was implied (and later confirmed) that they were friends but why would they continue to call each other, long distance, when they never get along unless they’re family? After the show my companion, who is himself of Caribbean descent, explained that my uncertainty might have been cultural. Their relationship was clear to him because in his experience close friends become family and that is just what you do — you stay in touch no matter what.
One aspect my companion pointed out was that various minor white characters were talked to but not acted by anybody. Nadège, for example, has a scene where she cannot force herself to tell her thesis supervisor that she loathes the prospect of going to Timmins. It’s a funny encounter but there is no need for the thesis supervisor to actually be there — we can tell what he says by Nadège’s reactions. This does the crucial work of centering the voices of black women.
The show is in French with some performances, such as the one I attended, with English surtitles. There is also some Creole in the show, which is also translated into French in the surtitles. Be forewarned, if you’re used to surtitles from opera Espoir/Espwa is a bit more challenging to read while also watching the action. This is in part because the scope of the venue is so much smaller (in opera, you’re usually set back enough to easily take in the stage and the translation all at once) and also because these women are rapid fire talkers, so there’s a lot more text.
I wish there had been a bit more content regarding forestry issues in Haiti, given that it’s an important aspect of the resolution of Nadège’s plotline, and the whole production could be a bit tighter, which will probably happen naturally during its run. It’s a show that will make you smile, and may challenge any stereotypes you may have of what life is like in Haiti.
- Espoir/Espwa, is produced by Théâtre français de Toronto at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley Street) until March 6, 2016
- Showtimes are Wednesday to Saturday at 8P M, Saturday matinées on February 27 & March 5 at 3:30 PM, Sunday matinées on February 28 & March 6 at 2:30 PM (English surtitled performances are Wednesdays & Fridays at 8 PM and Saturdays at 3:30 PM and 8 PM)
- Tickets are $45 to $49 for adults, $38 to $42 for seniors, and $30 for under 30, with Pay-What-You-Can Wednesdays and $20 rush tickets on Saturday evenings
Photo of Edwige Jean-Pierre, Djennie Laguerre and Carline Zamar by Marc Lemyre