Director/Playwright ahdri zini mandiela‘s moving theatre work who knew grannie? a dub aria is currently on at Toronto’s Factory Theatre. I went to the show unsure of what to expect; I had seen mandiela’s other work (notably her inspired direction of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the 25th anniversary of the Canadian Stage Company) and I was also aware she’d founded the ground-breaking b current Performing Arts Company.
Now, I’d been told grannie is “more of a song” than a formal play. Well, what a beautiful song -and what a delightful, wholly satisfying, of theatre it is! Exploring ideas around family, community, loss, and black identity in the 21st century, the work carefully, masterfully incorporates musical elements into its rich, poetic dialogue; it reminded me of Beat poetry, of jazz, of Caribana, of church, of things intimate and epic and singularly, defiantly boundary-crossing -all elements that, to my mind, should be playing a part in humming the tune of contemporary Canadian theatre.
Characters like the bespecled likklebit (Miranda Edwards), the cellphone-addicted vilma (Andrea Scott), yuppie kris (Marcel Stewart), and rebel tyetye (Joseph Pierre), as well as grannie herself (Ordena) are all well-drawn and eagerly performed. Despite their different journeys, mandiela has created a vital thread of connection running between them, a thread that’s given physical manifestation in the form of multi-coloured lines of cord running across the Factory’s wide stage expanse. Used alternately as clothing lines, cages, lines of demarcation and nationality, Julia Tribe’s inspired design is a beautiful compliment to mandiela’s writing and direction, demonstrating the twin notions of separation and connection, distance and intimacy, past and present (and even future) all at once.
Combined with the live percusison of Amina Alfred, who knew grannie: a dub aria is masterful, moving theatre that salutes the past (be it conventions, generations, people or places) while moving boldly into new, exciting realms of performance possibility and the outer reaches of the human heart. I had the opportunity of interview ahdri zhina mandiela about the work; her answers are, unsurprisingly, every bit as poetic as her show.
What inspired who knew grannie: a dub aria? Was it a specific person, or situation?
the aria is inspired by my mother, who is the eldest daughter of her mother, the grannie on whom the central character is based. my mother is in her mid-80’s and may pass on soon; this is my way of facing that impending loss.
How did you decide on the show’s format? Was music always a major part of it?
as a performance poet, most, if not all, of my writing is poetry, and the musicality of language has always been present in my work. this piece demanded that the music be highlighted in the telling of who knew grannie; hence the coining of the term ‘dub aria’.
How does the language inform and shape the narrative and characters?
verbal language is just one of the communication principles in the narrative. emotional language, language of space & movement are others; each contribut(es) to shaping the characters’ personalities, journeys, and interactions.
the ‘languages’ needed to have their music highlighted/enhanced/
plus, the drum is a primal musical instrument, and very much represents grannie’s voice: that’s the musical instrument she would play if she was a ‘musician’.
Who is this for?
everyone: we all have a grannie still living or on the other side. and we all have some memories of relating to a grannie or grandmother figure.
who knew grannie: a dub aria runs at the Factory Theatre in Toronto through April 4th.
Photo credit: Nicola Betta Photography.
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