Review: I Cannot Lose My Mind & Once Upon a Black Boy (The Watah Theatre)

The Watah Theatre stages a double bill of work in Toronto

I was excited as I made my way to Streetcar Crowsnest to see a double bill- the premiere of I Cannot Lose My Mind and an excerpt reading of a work-in-progress entitled Once Upon A Black Boy– presented by The Watah Theatre. The folks at The Watah Theatre can usually be relied upon to present something challenging and unexpected and they did not disappoint.

The evening kicks off with an excerpt reading from Once Upon A Black Boy which is a play in development by d’bi.young anitafrika. From what I could glean from the extract that was read the story is about a feminist single black mother who wants to raise her son according to ideals that are very clear to her. However, her plans are soon derailed as her son grows and begins to navigate a world that is biased against Black men.

For instance, this woman who was once brimming with revolution (as she states earlier in the piece) has a meltdown over the fact that her son has changed out of his school uniform before he got home. Her concern being that he will seem less threatening in a school uniform, that clearly identifies him as a child, and that will afford him some level of protection against hostile strangers or even possible police brutality.

Mother and son seem to butt-heads a lot and the reading ends just as soon as her son finds out that she has cancer. In the talk-back d’bi.young stated that this is the turning point in the mother-son relationship.

My date for the evening, Amira, mused that it would be really interested to see how this relationship develops and moves forwards from the son’s point of view. She was also taken with anitafrika’s uncanny ability to conjure different and distinctive characters into existence by changing her tone of voice, accent, and physicality.

This is a one-woman show where anitafrika plays several characters that perform the story in real-time interspersed with (an almost) stream of consciousness monologues that (sorta) act as a one-woman Greek choir. I found these sections to be difficult to understand because they seemed fragmentary and disjointed.

In my view d’bi.young’s creations are usually shrouded in a bit of mystery which, I believe, is what makes them so compelling yet, also slightly frustrating as you never feel you’ve quite grasped it all. This play seems to be more accessible and more straightforward than her previous work. I very much look forward to the finished product.

I Cannot Lose My Mind is the work of Watah Theatre School graduate Najla Nubyanluv who both authored and performed the play. Nubyanluv tells the story of Rakesha Law, a Black woman struggling with depression, which we soon find out, seems to stem from long rooted systems of oppression.

She is supported in her recovery process by a Jamaican female doctor named Black, who observes that her other patients seem to have the same vivid dreams as Law.

Soon it is revealed that the “old boy” Wexford brothers who are psychiatrists who consult with Dr. Black from time to time are trying to harness and consume these dreams of Law’s in an effort to understand and claim power over the secrets of creation.

While I appreciate the gravity and timeliness of the themes that Nubyanluv has put forward I felt that they were presented in a way that was too on-the-nose. At one point Dr. Black exclaims “Did you say all-Black cast and female leads in the same sentence? Looks like it will be my new favourite show!” It would be great to see if these very valid issues which Nubyanluv is raising could be complicated further.

Other ideas such as the Seven Sisters who understood the mysteries of creation did not seem to be developed enough. Amira remarked that she was not able to follow that storyline and I was only able to keep up because I had seen a few Watah Theatre shows so I guessed that Najla Nubyanluv was weaving bio-myth into her story.

I did enjoy the way the performance unfolded and Nubyanluv’s sincerity and vulnerability engage and draw you into the story. While I understand that all the themes presented are related; mental health issues triggered by systems of oppression which service a capitalist system, it does seem like this play tries to do too much at once. It is, however, too good to not get a second life once it has been re-visited by the artist.

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Photo of Najla Nubyanluv by Enas Satir

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