At Theatre Passe Muraille, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.
Created and performed by John Millard and Waleed Abdulhamid
Directed by Marjorie Chan
Set and costumes by Joanna Yu
Projection and lighting by Kaitlin Hickey
Sound by Kai Masoaka
While this is a lovely story of friendship and I want to hear all the music again I found the execution of the show to be frustrating.
The Story. John Millard is a Canadian musician, composer and stalwart of the theatre. Waleed Abdulhamid is a Sudanese musician who came to Toronto in 1990. Both men met when they were Artistic Residents at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. While they came from different cultures they bonded over music, a common language for both of them. They taught each other songs they learned in childhood and that blossomed into their friendship, and this partnership in creating this show.
The Production. The stage is full of instrument stands with various kinds of stringed instruments: banjo, an instrument that looks like a mandolin of sorts for Millard and, a box percussion instrument, a long-necked stringed instrument among others for Abdulhamid. There are various microphones as well to amplify the instruments and head mics to amplify the singers. With all that amplification the music is distorted at times and trying to make out the lyric or melody is a challenge. I wonder how wonderful the music would be with no amplification. The theatre is small. It’s not Massey Hall. And we are there to listen as well as hear.
A piece of material that looks like a sail is stretched across the back of the stage. To director Marjorie Chan that sail suggests travel from far away. That image certainly works in context to Abdulhamid’s story.
The names of the various songs are projected onto the sail in English and Arabic. Millard sings his songs in English so are self-explanatory. Abdulhamid sings his in Arabic with no explanation of what they mean. I think that’s a missed opportunity. At one point Abdulhamid sings a mournful song (I don’t recall a title being projected) that is accompanied by projections. First there is an animation of part of an oblong structure in water. Then various animated small bodies float from the various corners of the sail and are placed on the oblong structure, creating a haunting image of people being packed onto a boat and taken from Africa to where ever to be slaves. That there is no comment, pre-amble or explanation is another missed opportunity.
Both Millard and Abdulhamid banter about the difference in their culture’s music. Millard understands the structure of North American music but at times had difficulties with Abdulhamid’s music because the structure is so different—it doesn’t have what we call a ‘down-beat’. Millard notes how hard it was to learn one of the songs because he couldn’t get ‘into the structure.’ The conversation between the two musicians at times seems so insider that one is tempted to say, “hello, we’re in the room with you. Can you include us?” At other times Millard seems a bit unsteady in his telling of his various stories and experiences.
Abdulhamid tells a touching story of how he tried to learn English and how someone did him a kindness and showed him a better way. It’s a lovely story of welcome.
Comment. A few suggestions:
1) Can we please have a list of the songs and who wrote them in the program.
2) Can there please be some explanation or translation of what the Arabic songs mean before the singing of the songs.
3) Please lower the amplification so we can hear the music without distortion or get rid of it completely and trust us to listen.
4) Both musicians use instruments that don’t look like regular instruments. Can we have an explanation of what they are? What is that stringed instrument that Millard uses that is not a guitar but looks like it can be a kind of mandolin? What are all the instruments called that Abdulhamid uses? The show is about the differences in their music. That also goes for their instruments.
5) I would like as much time and effort that went into producing confident, accomplished singing of the songs, to go into the narrative and story-telling. As it was when I saw it there was a lot of awkward stammering and ‘re-editing’ in telling the story.
The music is terrific. The story of Millard and Abdulhamid’s friendship is sweet. But the execution of the show is clunky, frustrating and in need of re-writing and rehearsing,
Presented by Theatre Passe Muraille in association with Cahoots Theatre Company.
First performance: Feb. 16, 2017.
Saw it: Feb. 18, 2017.
Closes: March 5, 2017.
Cast: 2 men
Running Time: 90 minutes.