Magic swirls around Toronto’s Theatre Centre as Letters to the Universe takes the stage
Shaunga Tagore’s Letters to the Universe (on stage until Sunday at The Theatre Centre) is the kind of show that makes me feel better about staying up too late on a too-hot, too-humid work night: diverse, intimate, generous, sensual, a bit strange, and captivating.
Letters to the Universe is a Queer Brown Astrologer’s own story, told as she traverses time, space, and memory through song, dance, projection and more. My cranky, long-day-at-the-office mood didn’t stand a chance in the face of such honest, beautiful storytelling.
Letters to the Universe begins mysteriously, as figures gather and circle the audience, singing, moving, and keeping time with the background audio. Immediately intrigued, I begin trying to figure out who they were. Death? Mother? Jesus? The… Ocean?
Before I can figure that out, we’re transported into the world of a child (Tagore). With innocence, wonder, and exuberance, she writes her first set of letters to the universe, carving out grand plans, casting spells and manifesting wishes.
Soon, we’re feeling the awkwardness of adolescence intersecting with the ugliness of racism, and the first of many transformations has begun (for the Tarot enthusiasts out there, I kept imagining the Death card throughout the play). Images being projected onto a curtain were well matched with the themes being displayed: e.g. Death (the Moon), maturation (flowers blooming). They take us through several stages and phases of life—some beautiful, some dark, all relatable—before eventually coming full circle.
Throughout are audio segments, revealing depth and details about the storyteller’s life. These were my favourite parts of the play: unflinchingly honest, with sometimes violent crescendos, they brought me to tears more than once. They were also great reminders that community, love, vulnerability, and magic are great life-savers.
I won’t reveal the whole journey (it was full of magic, lore, poetry, symbolism, and emotion), or the ultimate destination (it was perhaps a tad bit predictable, but also wholly believable), but I will say that I was satisfied by the end.
Ushering us—and the storyteller herself—through these journeys was an incredible cast: Warrior (Choreographer Sze-Yang Ade-Lam), Conjuror (Robin Akimbo), Star (Shadrack Jackman), Premonition (Anabel Kai Yin Khoo), Healer (Miranda Warner), Siren (Ravyn Wngz) and of course The Storyteller (Shaunga Tagore).
I was surprised by the amazing vocal talents amongst them, particularly Shadrack Jackman. Not only did we experience great vocal range, but the emotion conveyed through song was powerful. A special mention must also go to costume designer Daniel Thompson for the colourful, shiny, apt clothing worn by the performers. They told stories themselves in the way they played with translucence, shimmer, reflection, and colour.
Letters to the Universe tells a story many of us aren’t used to hearing: that of a Queer, Of Colour “Super Queerdo” struggling with life and love and community and belonging. While I can’t relate to the racism—I move through life with the benefits of white privilege—I can certainly relate to being an outsider (fat stigma crosses all facets of life).
My companion Caryhn’s favourite part was that relatability. Also Indian, she’s experienced most of what the storyteller did growing up (and continues to experience micro- and macro-aggressions regularly), and she recognizes the lack of exposure these realities get. She spoke of how much she enjoyed seeing her own life reflected in another’s story.
I’m thrilled that more of these stories—of intersecting marginalized identities—are being told.
Our only beef with this show was minor compared to our enjoyment of it. The layout of the seating wasn’t ideal for being able to see both the cast and the projection (depending on where you sit — I’d suggest staying close to the sound booth), and in several places beams blocked the view. I found myself and many others craning our necks for extended periods of time. Choose your seat wisely.
But if you’re someone who digs a diverse cast, fantastic storytelling, and you aren’t afraid of some magic, check this show out.
Photo of Shaunga Tagore by N. Maxwell Lander