Review: Speaking of Sneaking (The Riser Project 2018/Why Not Theatre)

Speaking of Sneaking entices Toronto audiences again as part of The Riser Project 2018

Before the house doors have closed, before anyone has had a chance to settle into their seats, the mischievous and energetic Ginnal is up and about: introducing himself, making sure you have a program, that you’ve gone to the bathroom, that you fully understand that he is—beyond any doubt—the focus of this show and that he demands your full attention.

Part of The Riser Project 2018, Speaking of Sneaking is created and performed by daniel jelani ellis. Based on experiences growing up queer in Jamaica and, later, making a home in Canada, the show has been in development since 2010 when he introduced it as part of the Emerging Creators Unit at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Since then, he has presented a version of it for the Rhubarb festival and now, for Riser, he has teamed up with director/dramaturge d’bi.young anitafrika and choreographer Brian Solomon. 

The storyline is a blend of lived experience and mythology. Ginnal takes his name from the Jamaican archetype of the trickster who relies on charm and a crafted persona to ingratiate himself to others. Like the sneaky ginnal, our protagonist’s manner and speech adapts to the expectations of those around him. He can be flamboyant and sensual, sweet and respectful, or snarky and irreverent.

Helping to tell Ginnal’s story, we have Anansi, the spider of African folklore that, through cleverness and ambition, has become the keeper of all stories. ellis’s portrayal of Anansi was particularly captivating to me. With wide, piercing eyes locked on the audience, his body contorted into hypnotic, arachnid movement, he helps Ginnal achieve his dream of moving to Foreign (a catch-all term for abroad). 

As you can see, the language here is an ever-evolving, culture-weaving, hybrid of English and Jamaican Patois. ellis’s portrayal of Ginnal’s immigrant experience feels both authentic and poetic. 

I was sometimes at a loss to understand the significance of certain moments. Many in the audience would frequently laugh in acknowledgement at some quick, throw-away comment. There is certainly a deep well of shared experience that ellis is tapping into. Regardless of my inability to relate first-hand to certain references, ellis is a throughly engaging presence and the context is always accessible enough. 

It also helps that ellis, as part of his introduction, explains that this is a “Yardie show” and if anybody is confused, he’ll be around to answer questions after the afterward. It is this open and inviting atmosphere which allows him to revel in culturally specific idiosyncrasies without unduly alienating anybody. 

An aspect of the story I found myself connecting to was the barrel that contains an assortment of “Foreign” items that had been sent to Ginnal by his grandmother abroad in Canada. I confess: I was inordinately excited when I recognized the relevance of this barrel. Not that I have ever sent one, but my Filipino boyfriend has family back home and, once a year, he sends a huge box of sundries to them. I am intimately familiar with the obligation family members feel to keep up the appearance of living a good life abroad and to share their wealth. 

Having read about ellis’s journey with this piece, I wish I had seen the earlier incarnations of it. Speaking of Sneaking is a work that is intimately wound up in ellis’s personal history, his artistic process and the various collaborators who have influenced him.

ellis is a joy to watch as he fiercely inhabits the space, shifting between several colourful characters and invoking a very palpable sense of place. It is a piece that is all the more rewarding when you understand the process and the specific mythos ellis is drawing from. 

  • Speaking of Sneaking is playing until May 11, 2018 at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen St. West)
  • See show page for performance times
  • Tickets are $5 to $60
  • Tickets can be purchased online or by phone 416-538-0988

Photo of daniel jelani ellis by Tsholo Khalema.