Already with one Governor General's award under her belt, playwright Djanet Sears has emerged as one of Canada's most compelling playwrights with the success of her latest work, "The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God". Named after a short story by George Bernard Shaw, the play is a multifarious drama that employs a cast of 21 actors -- 8 principals supported by a 13 member chorus. At 42, Sears' previous work has included the one-woman tour de force "Afrika Solo" and the rhapsodic history play "Harlem Duet" (for which she was awarded the GG). In addition, she has kept herself busy as an anthologist of African Canadian plays, a writer-in-residence at the University of Toronto and as curator of a national Afri-Canadian Theatre Festival which was part of the 2000 DuMaurier World Stage festival at Harbourfront in Toronto.
First let me come clean on this interview -- I have known Sears for over twenty years. We originally met during my tenure as administrator and associate producer with Black Theatre Canada in Toronto (from 1981 to '88). Djanet (who then went by Janet) was a young woman with a driving curiosity who wanted to know how the theatre works. Even then she was gifted with an abundance of creative energy and a ferocious intellect. If BTC (which closed its doors in 1988) mounted a poetry workshop, Djanet had a poem; if we organized a music workshop, Djanet had a song; and when we put out the call for auditions, Djanet was first in line.
She changed her first name after a visit to Africa: "I was in west Africa and we were getting ready to go into Mali when we went through a town called Djanet. It seemed like I had discovered a little part of myself so I made it mine."
Her latest effort is a morality play that deals with faith and spirituality while including a neat subtext of black history, ethno cultural representation and the nature of relationships. It has substance as well as style within a form that is brimming over with content. The premise of the play is simple and taken from a story that surfaced in newspapers several years ago. It seems that the local town council up in the rural northern community of Holland Centre, Ontario, wanted to change the name of Negro Creek Road. They didn't like the word Negro -- thought it was old fashioned and a bit insulting to black folks. They wanted to change it to Moggie Road in honor of an early white settler.
The small local black community, whose ancestors go back to the days of the Underground Railroad when fleeing black slaves found sanctuary across the border in Canada, rose up in protest. Sears saw a drama unfolding in a little community and wound up writing a play that asks big questions.
Why did she she think this incident had the stuff of drama within it? Sears begins by choosing her words slowly and carefully, and then rushes into the answer as her thoughts and ideas begin to speed up. "I followed the story in the papers and then didn't think too much more about it. But for some reason it wouldn't leave me. Then about the same time came a huge controversy at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto concerning their exhibition of African artifacts entitled, "Into the Heart of Africa." The curator mounted the exhibition and interpreted the artifacts through the voices of white missionaries of the period. It was meant to be post-modern with a heavy sense of the ironic. The irony was lost on many members of the black community in Toronto. There are a few lines in the play taken almost verbatim from the exhibit"
What happens in her script is a fictional conflation of these two events, which become thematic throughout. The leading character is a woman named Rainey who is in the midst of a failed marriage with her husband Michael, the minister of the local black church. Rainey is a non-practicing physician who cannot come to spiritual closure around the death of her daughter whom she believes she had misdiagnosed. "I believe in my heart that stories are a fundamental nutrition for the soul", Sears continued. "These stories are everywhere, in the news -- wherever -- and so I tried to approach this play as having several layers of stories to tell."
The comic subplot involves the story of Rainey's terminally ill father, Abendigo, and his band of septuagenarian activists who have taken on the task of ridding the northern Ontario countryside of offensive black lawn jockey ornaments and the retrieval of a military uniform worn by a black United Empire Loyalist soldier killed in the War of 1812. The authorities at the time returned the man's body to be buried in Negro Creek but kept his uniform, which ended up in the museum.
"The dramatic dynamic here is that the senior citizens are a lively group who masquerade as Jehovah's witnesses when they go off on their escapades and Abendigo, although dying, has more life in him than Rainey. In the end she is transformed through her dying father."
Sears also directed her play and in authoring the production as well as the script, she took on significant challenges. "I had to fight to maintain the importance of the chorus. Using 13 actors adds significantly to the budget, but the play needs the chorus. In a kind of Aristotelian way I wanted to create a vehicle not to advance the narrative so much in any neo-classical sense, but to advance the unity of action within the play. It really comes more out of African story-telling techniques, which I observed over there. Constant movement, gesture, dance and sound -- reaching as many of the senses as possible, sometimes without the audience even being consciously aware of it."
"The Adventures of a Black Girl..." is the inaugural production of Obsidian Theatre, a new company in Toronto dedicated to giving expression to the black experience in Canada. The company takes its name form the hard, black shiny glass produced by the rapid cooling of volcanic lava.
Produced in association with Nightwood theatre, the production was received enthusiastically by Toronto audiences for its limited run at Harbourfront's DuMaurier theatre (see my colleague Joel Greenberg's review in Aisle Say). As a result of its initial success, Mirvish Productions is currently negotiating the possibility of including a remounting of the show in their 2002-2003 subscription season. It is an auspicious beginning for Obsidian Theatre who has erupted on the Toronto theatre season with a passion and a commitment that is very welcome indeed.
Go to Joel Greenberg's Review of the Play
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