Ngozi Paul delights Toronto audiences as writer and performer in The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely
I was not in the greatest mood when I arrived at Streetcar Crowsnest to watch The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely. It was raining hard, I was tired from the week, and my guest had just canceled at the last minute.
Fortunately, all this quickly left my mind as I proceeded to watch one of the best shows I have seen all season. In fact, I am still trying to process the immensity of what I saw on stage that night.
In The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely, Playwright/Performer Ngozi Paul invites us to bear witness to her inter-generational and intercultural search for sexual fulfilment and self-love as a Black woman in “strange and perilous times.” Paul weaves her own experiences with the story of Sara Baartman, a South African Khoikhoi woman from the 19th century who was enslaved and subsequently exhibited by a Dutch trader and whose body remained dissected and on display for more than a hundred and fifty years after her death. By placing her own experiences alongside Baartman’s, Paul examines the long history of the commodification and exoticization of the Black female body and how the remnants of this harm reverberates to today.
At its core, this is a play about the search for freedom: the freedom to love, the freedom to be loved, the freedom to love ourselves. How do we emancipate ourselves in a world that is not made to accept who we are?
The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely is one of those rare, special shows where everything just works. This is no easy feat for a multidisciplinary show that has to take the audience back and forth through time and space but, fortunately, the creative team is more than up for the challenge.
Kaleigh Krysztofiak’s lighting design could transform Judith Bowden’s versatile set from an amorphous place of memory to a high school dance floor in the blink of an eye. These transformations were both ably led and supported by DJ L’Oqenz’s perfectly-curated soundtrack for the evening and the evocative live music performed by Sound Designer Waleed Abdulhamid.
But the undisputed highlight of the show is the extraordinary quality of Paul’s writing and performance. Aided by choreographer Roger Jeffrey, Paul convincingly cycles through a rotating door of characters with dance and humour. It wasn’t just that each character had distinct speech and movement, it was that Paul seemed to evoke an entirely new presence every time she morphed into someone else on stage.
And Paul is not one for wasting words. Her writing is as specific and precise as her performance. Every piece of dialogue, every line of spoken word, every declaration pierces straight into the heart of the matter. As celebrated in the talk-back, what is extraordinary is Paul’s ability to illuminate the universal in the specific. As Paul affirmed herself, “I think the more specific the experience is, the more universal it is.”
Indeed, while the show reminded me of my privilege as a light-skinned East Asian woman–and that Paul will have experienced micro and macro-aggressions I will never have to–there are still so many lines in this play that sound exactly like conversations I have had with many of my woman-identified friends. The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely proves that writing from a specific perspective does not mean that the work cannot also speak universally.
This is an important show but, most of all, it is an extremely well-done show. The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely is a show that I would unreservedly tell everyone to go see.
- The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely plays until April 8th, 2017 at the Guloien Theatre at the Streetcar Crowsnest (345 Carlaw Avenue).
- Shows run Monday to Saturday at 8 PM with additional Saturday matinees at 2 PM.
- Single tickets are $25-$35. Tickets are available for purchase online, by telephone at 647 341 7390 ext. 1010, or in person at the venue Box Office two hours before each performance.
- There is a talk-back at the end of every performance.
Photo of Ngozi Paul by Setti Kidane.