At Theatre Passe Muraille, Backspace, Toronto, Ont,
Written and performed by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard
ASL components by Tamyka Bullen
Directtion/Dramaturgy by Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasaram
Lighting and set by Rebecca Vandevelde
Projection by Cameron Davis
Composition and sound by David Mesiha
An unflinching work that examines the need for freedom of artistic expression not only in oppressively governed countries but also in our own. Donna-Michelle St. Bernard creates a vivid picture of the difficulties artists of colour have in creating their art whether it’s in Tunisia or Toronto.
Background/story. Writer/performer Donna-Michelle St. Bernard has presented herself one humongous project of all projects. She is writing 54 plays inspired by each of the countries of Africa. In the process St. Bernard will reference her own life experience as an artist, a woman and a woman of colour here in Canada since she doesn’t have the life experience of Africa.
For Sound of the Beast Donna-Michelle St. Bernard was influenced by Tunisian rapper, Weld El 15. Weld El 15 is a political activist through his art and as such has seen his efforts stifled by the government and imprisoned for three years but released before his full term. Jail did not crimp his style and he continued to speak out.
St. Bernard‘s show is peppered with rap songs that reference injustice, stories that reveal her keen perception as she sizes things up as a woman in a man’s world of performing, being aware that men of colour are treated by police much differently than a white man is or in some cases a woman of colour.
The Production. Donna-Michelle St. Bernard saunters on stage, confident, open, and welcoming of the audience. She wears rolled up sweat pants, under which are black tights, a tank-top. A black sweater of sorts is spread out on the floor. St. Bernard lies down on the floor over the sweater; and puts her arms into it and feels that all is ok. I get the sense this is a ritualistic preparing to portray Weld El 15 as well as herself.
She introduces her friend Tamyka Bullen by turning to the back wall of the stage of the Backspace, at which point a video of Ms Bullen appears. I wish there was some context about who Ms Bullen is besides the program listing and why Ms St. Bernard wanted to include her. When Ms Bullen ‘recites’ her poems through American Sign Language (ASL) the English translation is projected on the back wall. She describes her difficulties being deaf and a woman of colour. But it is not clearly/brightly illuminated for me to read it easily. I am grateful for the insert in the program that lists the poems but wish the illumination on the wall was brighter, or that perhaps the projection could also be on the audience left side wall for easier reading.
St. Bernard references Weld El 15 first with a throbbing rousing rap number, pulsing with anger, conviction and the sense of danger. I figure this is his rap song. She evokes the dangerous world in which Weld El 15 lives; an oppressive, intolerant government that does not tolerate any criticism or opposition. This establishes the context for her own life experience here in Canada.
She puts us in her world of producing/performing by describing an incident between one of her crew and a producer in which she senses she is being passed over for respect. She quietly parses out what she perceives has happened. And we feel her awareness.
She describes a night, really very early morning, when she was finishing a long preparation for an upcoming show; had put up posters advertising the show and at 5 am was in search of a donut as reward for her labours. She was stopped and questioned by police who were cruising the area wondering why she was out at that hour. Rather than answer the questions she asked her own: Why did they need to know why she was out at that hour? Etc. They suggested that she was a prostitute. I sucked air. The person behind me gasped.
St. Bernard at once puts us in that world and gives us just a taste of that situation and what it is like to be black, a woman, and innocently on the street at 5 am. At once she unbalances us into thinking “just answer the questions and don’t give them ‘attitude’,” to thinking, “I’m being targeted, profiled and there is no cause,” to feeling anxious, angry and heartsick all at once for her.
She broadens her gaze and talks of black men being profiled by the police and who don’t seem to have recourse to fairness. She cites other examples as well that suggest something as innocuous as sitting under a tree could get the police to order one to ‘move along.’
St. Bernard does not rage and bellow in the telling. Rather she is soft-spoken, almost impish, playful, but certainly focused. That makes the telling all the more gut-wrenching.
The collaboration between St. Bernard and her two co-directors, Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram seems like a cohesive whole; their collaboration seems to be equal among all of them. St. Bernard is lively, agile, fluid, moves like a dancer and is embracing.
Comment. Donna-Michelle St. Bernard tells a gripping, compelling story that is happening all over the world. Her stories and their telling are not clichéd into sameness. Each one is perceptively drawn, calmly told, clearly illuminated and will make you suck air for all the right reasons. She is a compelling presence who tells a vital story.
Presented by Theatre Passe Muraille
Opened: April 18, 2017.
Closes: May 7, 2017.
Running Time: 100 minutes.