Centaur Theatre goes searching for God in season opener

Adventures 3

The only thing a self-professed summer lover like myself looks forward to in the fall (no, don’t say “cozy turtlenecks” I will hurt you) is the start of theatre season. And when I heard that the Centaur was going all-out for their 47th season opener with an astounding 22-member cast for their staging of The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of a God I was both impressed and curious to see how they would pull it off.

A co-production with the National Arts Centre (NAC) and in association with the Black Theatre Workshop (BTW), The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of a God is a mouthful to say and an ambitious labour of love for a whole bunch of people.

With 22 actors on stage, at least a dozen designers and creative artists, as well as another 30 people or so involved from the various artistic companies, there are a number of ways this could have all gone wrong. It doesn’t, however. It beautifully tells a tale of love, loss, faith, resistance, redemption, and ultimately finding peace – with ourselves and with each other.

Rainey (competently played by Lucinda Davis) is a country doctor, whose family can be traced back to the origins of Negro Creek, a 200-year-old Black community in Western Ontario. She’s abandoned her husband, her practice, and her faith, following the death of her young daughter from meningitis. As she’s about to finalize her divorce with her husband (played with understated charm and sensitivity by BTW’s Artistic Director Quincy Armorer), her elderly father (and retired Ontario judge) Abendingo is still busy fighting The Man with his gang of septuagenarian activist friends.

Played with immaculate comedic timing and infectious sass, the geriatric members of the Liberation of Thoroughly Seditious Artifacts Symbolizing the Oppression of African People (or LOTSASOAP if you’re short on time) like to don sunglasses and trench coats and embark on dangerous and perfectly orchestrated missions to “free” lawn jockeys, Aunt Jemima memorabilia, and other stereotypical racist objects symbolizing a less enlightened time in our history.

Seventy-two year old veteran actor Walter Borden is an absolute joy to watch as retired judge Abendigo, while he deals with a grieving daughter, his frail health and impending death, and a desire not to let life’s joys or priorities pass him by because of either. His physicality and nuanced and passionate performance made Borden’s Abendigo immensely watchable and real to me. So real, in fact, that the interactions between him and his daughter in a hospital setting were often almost too painful to endure for someone who had – not too long ago – said goodbye to her own aging father.

The rest of the LOTSAOAP gang (Barbara Barnes-Hopkins, Lili Francks, and Rudy Webb) are just as endearing and enjoyable to watch, with special mention going out to blues and gospel singer Jackie Richardson for her spunky acting, as well as her beautiful voice that had the crowd on its feet by the time she finished singing “What a Friend we Have in Jesus!”

Rooted in African storytelling traditions, and something that is also a familiar part of ancient Greek tragedies, a chorus of ancestors introduce, personify, pre-empt, accompany, and eventually help conclude the entire story with beautiful choreography and a compelling and often extremely moving soundtrack, written by Alejandra Nunez and Djanet Sears.  They seamlessly go from being the beating heart of the production’s soundtrack with their lovely a cappella sounds, to having their intertwining ever-reaching bodies and hands personifying the water of Negro Creek itself. I don’t think the story would have worked nearly as well without their joyous, luminous presence during every step of an – often, hard and heavy – story to share.

Lucinda Davis, who I last saw in BTW’s wonderful one-woman play Random, is very good, but often uneven in this production. There are times when I feel her grief immensely and other times when it leaves me indifferent. To be fair, the numbing of emotions and the intense monotone of bitterness required of the character can be hard to emote and consistently communicate during a play that has a running time of 2 hours and 45 minutes. It’s a long time to be angry at the world, at God, and at the injustices of life. And this is a woman who has chosen to bottle all of her grief inside, unable to share her emotions with her soon-to-be ex-husband, not even capable of visiting her daughter’s grave. Still… something felt like it was missing and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Rest assured, however, that it doesn’t take away from a production that is too solid to be marred by minor quibbling on my part.

Written and directed by Governor General’s Literary Award winning playwright Djanet Sears, The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of a God is uniquely Canadian in that it’s set in an Ontario community nestled at the base of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. There are references to the War of 1812 and Captain Runchy’s Company of Coloured Men, a little-known military unit of African Soldiers, made up of free men and escaped slaves, who fought against the invading U.S. army. Following the war, these Black veterans were offered grants of farmland and this is the land that Rainey and Abendigo now gaze upon as they try to understand one another and why they do the things they do.

In the end, it’s less about understanding than it is about loving. Loving your life the way it’s been shaped, whether through circumstances or choice, and the people in it.

The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of a God is a strong and stirring start to the season and a production that is well worth catching. It continues at the Centaur Theatre until Oct. 18. For tickets/and information: call 514-288-3161 or www.centaurtheatre.com