I was there to see my buddy Larry Fineberg's play Stonehenge Trilogy at the Factory Theatre. In the lobby, I noticed a little sign that said, "How many people have the potential to be great playwrights? One in a million. But there are 18 million people in Canada. Therefore, there are 18 great playwrights. Write a play!" A sign like that is something you don't forget.
If the one-in-a-million projection still applies, I guess that means Canada now has 32 great playwrights. And after I saw Djanet Sears' Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, I knew I'd encountered one of them. Sears sets her play in a most specific Canadian setting, the peninsula between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. The government gave the area to African soldiers who fought for England against the United States in the War of 1812 and it came to be known as "Negro Creek." But recently, in our politically correct times, its name was changed to Moggie Road in honor of an important white Canadian.
Here is where Sears sets her story of Rainey Baldwin-Johnson, a young African-American obstetrician who often lights a cigarette but then doesn't bring it to her mouth. She's not trying to stop smoking; she never did pick up the habit. What she wants is the cigarette ash, which she'll eat. After that, she'll stoop to the ground and scoop up dirt, which she'll eat too. She says it helps her ulcers, which Rainey acquired after losing her young daughter to a sudden and unexpected meningitis attack three years earlier. She's been heartbroken ever since. "God the Father is no father of mine," she snarls. That she was married to Michael, a devout preacher, was no help; she's become so intent on alienating and destroying herself that she left him. Yet Michael still loves her deeply and wants to help her move on. When Rainey tells him she's now hard at work on a thesis that says there's no God, Michael puts up a hand to protest. "I'm sales, not management," he says, trying to infuse some humor into their conversation. But Rainey is inconsolable.
Rainey is upset by her father's ill health but Abendigo is astonishingly well adjusted to the fact that he's approaching death; he even has his casket delivered to the house so it'll be ready for him when he needs it. ("Call me when you're though with the casket stand," the deliveryman says to him.) Rainey suddenly finds herself inclined to pray to keep her father alive. The powerful line that ends Act I: "It's not that I don't believe in God. The problem is I do."
How wonderfully actress Karen Robinson says it, and she is riveting throughout the performance as the tortured Rainey. Aside from Jan Maxwell as the fervent Communist in A Bad Friend, this is the finest female performance I've seen in a play this season. Walter Borden is marvelous as the father and David Collins equally impressive as the husband. But wait. In addition to five other actors who played Abendigo's compatriots, there are 15 other performers on stage -- yes, 15! -- all representing Rainey's ancestors from the early days of Negro Creek. As they dance to Vivine Scarlett's simple but effective choreography, they sing quite beautiful African-tinged music, all a capella. Sears, by the way, co-wrote the music with Alejandra Nunez and directed the play herself. On the basis of these jobs, she has to be considered one of Canada's 32 great composers and 32 great directors, too.
Good for David and Ed Mirvish for importing this cast-heavy show, which was first presented last year at two other Canadian theaters. Many producers would have looked at the play, waved a dismissive hand, and said, "You don't need all those singers and dancers up there." But they didn't. It's the type of bold move that Joe Papp used to make in his heyday with his Public Theater and it's nice to know that it can still happen, albeit north of the border. (Memo to George C. Wolfe: How about importing this to your Public Theater?)
My other visits to the theater weren't as rewarding. Scaramouche Jones at the Winter Garden is a one-man show about a circus clown who, on December 31, 1999, is not worried about Y2K because he believes it to be the last night of his life. He feels that he'll come full-circle because he was born on December 31, 1899. Apparently, the life of a circus clown is an easy one, for noted actor Pete Postlethwaite never seemed to be a century old in the animated way he walked around the stage. Still, he did deliver a fitfully arresting discourse ("My last unmasking that will thrill you and revolt you") while in his clown whiteface. That turned out to be an important plot point for Scaramouche told of what it was like growing up as an abnormally white-faced kid.
I was surprised that this 90-minute, intermissionless show spent 40 minutes getting us to 1906. Don't you expect that a play about a century-old person would be a sweep through history? Things do get more interesting after Scaramouche says, "I became an orphan, an exile, and a slave," but it's still a low-key evening for many more minutes, especially under Rupert Goold's slo-mo direction. Finally, though, it catches fire, as Scaramouche says that when he was in Germany under the Third Reich, he was revered because of his abnormally white skin. What happens after that is rather fascinating. Still, Justin Butcher will never be judged as one of Canada's 32 great playwrights -- he's British -- and I don't hold out hope that he'll be one of the United Kingdom's shining lights, either.
Next, I went to CanStage -- the cute, smushed-together name for Canadian Stage -- but a Canadian didn't write Cookin' at the Cookery. Marion J. Caffey's bioplay about jazz legend Alberta Hunter is very cleverly structured for two actresses. A young one (Montego Glover) portrays Hunter, the Southern girl who believes she's going to sing in "Memphis, Chicago, New York, the world!" while an older performer (Jackie Richardson) plays her doubtful mother. But in the scenes where Hunter is a grown and mature woman looking back, the older actress suddenly becomes Hunter and the younger one functions as everyone else, from a booking agent to Louis Armstrong.
Toronto Star critic Richard Ouzounian had told me in advance that there was one thrilling performance in the show; but I didn't know which one he meant while I was viewing it, for both ladies were extraordinary. Still, I can't say that Richardson remotely resembled Hunter, whom I met in 1977 when we were both about to appear on the then-popular game show To Tell the Truth. (Hunter was to portray herself on the show while I was a mere impostor -- not for her, as you might have guessed.)
Looking back on it now, I wish I'd seen the work of another Canadian playwright: I'm sorry that I didn't go to the Factory Theatre which, I'm happy to say, still exists and is now doing a quintessentially Canadian play, as is evidenced by its title: Hockey Mom, Hockey Dad, by Michael Melski. I at least should have dropped by the Factory to see if there was an updated sign in the lobby that encouraged Canadians to strive to become great playwrights. I sure hope there is.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]