"The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God" is the launch piece of Obsidian Theatre, a Toronto-based theatre company created specifically to tell the stories of black Canadians to all Canadians. It is also the premiere of Djanet Sears' newest play, a piece that has been in process for about eight years. Either event justifies eager anticipation, but the two rolled into one makes for an important evening in this theatre season's landscape. From the opening night performance and audience reception, it appears that both Obsidian and Sears will be heartily embraced.
Rainey (Alison Sealy-Smith) and Michael (David Collins) are in the process of divorcing. At the same time, they are grieving the death of their daughter. And as if these events aren't enough to negotiate, Abendigo (Walter Borden), the woman's father, is dying. The play follows Rainey through the anguish of her own feelings of guilt about her daughter's death (she was a doctor and she feels responsible for not knowing that her daughter had meningitis) and her further despair at being an unworthy daughter to her terminally ill father. And through her despair and rantings about the powerlessness of the only God she knows, Rainey seeks spiritual salvation.
On a superficial level, her inability to stick with one profession tells us that the woman is rootless and agitated. She is academically accomplished and, therefore, capable of succeeding at whatever goal she sets herself. That she resists a professional commitment at the same time that she is insisting on terminating the human relationship she has had, reinforces that the woman is desperately adrift. As we get to know her better, we accept that she needs to understand her pain if she is ever to get past it.
A secondary plot involves the woman's father, a retired judge who is always surrounded by a quartet of seventy-somethings. This band of friends has set themselves the task of 'liberating' (read this as stealing) black lawn jockeys and similarly offensive objects wherever they can find them. To accomplish their goal, they pass themselves off as Jehovah's Witnesses, a team of office cleaning staff and whatever else works to meet their mission of cleansing the countryside. Furthermore, Abendigo and his cronies are determined to maintain the name of their community, Negro Creek, in spite of local agitation to have the name changed.
Sears, who is also the play's director, has included a large chorus of thirteen actors who sing and dance throughout. Their movement, choreographed by Vivine Scarlett, is best integrated into the whole in the less self-conscious interludes that incorporate scene changes and abstracted expression. (There are a couple of unnecessary sequences when the dance feels inserted rather than inspired.) But they are most theatrical when they are least seen, and this is not meant to be uncomplimentary. When they move into the downstage pit, they represent the creek that bears the community's name, and as the source of life that they represent, their movement and sound is quietly penetrating.
The Adventures of a Black Girl is epic in its writer's design and its director's vision, and since writer and director are the same, this is not surprising. Some of the serious writing -- especially the scenes between Rainey and Michael -- suffers from overstatement and a relentless earnestness. And the gentler, more comic scenes -- those with Abendigo and his pals -- threaten to distract us from the play's central story and character. It's not that Rainey wants to lighten up (with divorce, a dead child and dying father, what room is there for breathing, let alone laughing?) but she is not as interesting, finally, as many others around her. Perhaps the issue here is that Sears and Sealy-Smith, who is also the company's artistic director, are too determined to make this role a tour de force.
The play also suffers in the second act when too much that has been established in the first half cannot satisfy expectations. The wonderful contrivance of having the marauding seniors seek and collect offensive artifacts is blunted in a protracted scene that shows them making off with a museum piece. A scene in which we learn that the church has been defaced, and the scene with the congregation that follows, is too predictable for this otherwise original writing. (The singing of Jackie Richardson in the congregation almost makes up for this dramatic misstep.) The final scene, which promises hope for both Rainey and Michael, does not ring true.
David Collins is very fine as the husband-preacher. He is more convincing in the personal scenes than in his role in the pulpit, but he plays through an enormous emotional range with a directness that is wholly credible. In a second act scene he is also provided the opportunity to add humour to an otherwise humourless character, and he absolutely shines in quietly effective underplaying.
Alison Sealy-Smith attacks the role of Rainey with a ferocity that doesn't let up. She sustains and builds the tension of the woman and the events in her tortured life, but unlike Collins, she reveals her technique and her effort enough to distance us from the character she is playing. It is an absolutely honest performance, to be sure, and perhaps the seams will disappear as the run progresses. At the moment, however, it's just too theatrical.
The rest of the company is genuine, warm-hearted and committed. Their acting rarely rises above the obvious, but their sense of ensemble and purpose is what the enterprise needs and what they so selflessly deliver.
Obsidian has co-produced the project with Nightwood Theatre and the programme also includes the names of several provincial and federal granting bodies that have made this dream a reality. There is no doubt that the dreamers and contributors will feel justly proud of what they have created. And through this initial run, playing at the du Maurier Theatre until February 23, let us hope that the public will be wise enough to add its support to a new and necessary member of the Toronto theatre scene.
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