Lightning from Behind the Thick Clouds

Ma Reiney's Black Bottom, Soulpepper
Marcel Stuart, Virgilia Griffith, and Alana Bridgewater. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Sizzling drama in Toronto

TORONTO: Soulpepper continues to be the premier theatre company, not only in Toronto, but all across Canada.

Now, increasingly, its choices of plays and its directors and actors are representing the multicultural face of Canada, as well as the new emerging ethos of the 21st century: a place of dignity for everyone on the banquet table of history.

Two plays that mark this new ethos at Soulpepper this summer are: Judith Thompson’s After the Blackout and August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

The first play, After the Blackout, directed by the creator of the play herself, explores the world of the disabled – both physically and mentally – and its humanity and its poignancy. It is not a make-believe world; it is a world presented by those who are disabled: a leg is missing; a face is marred; another has had severe mental breakdown; another has sent years in dungeons of a prison, depressed and devastated.

after the blackout
After the Blackout Ensemble. Photo by Elias Campbell

It is the gift and imagination of the playwright Thompson that she takes their world – their pain and suffering, their moments of exasperation and occasion rapture, their yearnings and their hopes – and makes it even more real than real. She takes one ‘dreadful’ after another in the lives of several people, and through estrangement, discovers a certain illumination. As she puts it: “We can climb mountains with no legs, cycle with no vision, do algebra with brain damage, find our way in the dark with no hearing, but can we fix the calamities that befall so many human relationships?”

After the Blackout is an endlessly seething play; it is presented with great verve and commitment by a slew of very accomplished actors: Prince Ampnsah, Tamyka Bullen, Yousef Kadoura, Mary Beth Rubens, Malanie Lepp, Catherine Jeell Mackinnon.

But above all, the shining star of this show is the director and the playwright herself: Judith Thompson.

The second play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is partly based on the trials and tribulations of Blues singer Ma Rainey, and through her of the Afro-Americans over many decades and centuries.

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Soulpepper
Marcel Stewart, Diego Matamoros, Alex Poch-Goldin, Beau Dixon, Neville Edwards, and Alana Bridgewater seen in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Slavery is the original sin of America as a nation; it is a sin that seems to know no end. It was – is – a sin that has been committed not only in the tobacco and cotton fields, or in the trenches and the dungeons, but also in music halls, where the birth of Blues took place, and where some extraordinary music was created. Its vocal style descended from southern work songs, and was in many ways was a critical step in the transformation of slaves in America from Africans to African-Americans. As Ma says, the blues is “life’s way of talking.”

The play exposes the underbelly – the bottom, if you wish – of that creative surge among the blacks and its endless exploitation by the white folks in hundred insidious ways.

The playwright, August Wilson, has a certain mastery of the rhythmic, pungent language spoken by the Afro-American in 1920s, and also of the seething pain that marked their lives at every turn.

Through a brilliant cast, the director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, presents Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as a poignant expose of the original sin that has marked the ‘exceptionalism’ of America over many centuries.

(Dr. Sehdev Kumar lectures on ‘International Films and the Human Condition’ at the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto)

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