Review: AWAKE

by Lynn on January 4, 2013

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Factory Theatre, Mainspace as part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival. Created and directed by Laura Mullin and Chris Tolley. Musical Director is Andrew Craig, Choreographer is Nicola Pantin. Designed by Jackie Chau. Lighting by Arun Srinivasan. Organist is Richard Wilson. Starring: Beryl Bain, Lauren Brotman, Quancetia Hamilton, Muoi Nene, Peyson Rock, David Shelley, Richard Stewart.

Laura Mullin and Chris Tolley have worked in the Jamestown/Rexdale community listening to stories of the residents concerning gun violence, troubled youth, crime, fear and hopelessness. Central to the creation of Awake and shaping it are the deaths of Justin Shephard and Amon Beckles, two innocent young men who were gunned down, one of them on the steps of the church where he was attending the funeral of a friend, also gunned down. Mullin and Tolley were moved and startled at the stories they were told and realizing the pressures and adversity the residents experienced. They wanted to give voice to those people, usually afraid of speaking, especially to the police so that the rest of us can understand and learn the full story. They are only partially successful.

They have used the technique of verbatim speeches. They interviewed Nadia Beckles (Amon’s mother) and Audette Shephard (Justin’s mother), along with gang members, police, youth workers, and other mothers who lost children to gun violence. Awake uses their words exactly to tell the story.

Nadia is strict, formidable when dealing with her children, but a projected sentence on the back wall asks “Should I have been stricter?” “Should I have tied you up” (to prevent you from going out into danger is understood). Good questions that would keep anybody up at night wondering what they could have done to prevent a child from being killed.

Audette tries to be strict but is more accommodating. She tries to be curious about where her son is and where he’s going. Her attempts to be proactive were not successful either as we see.

We hear about a police officer (white) who tried to be understanding and when he didn’t get co-operation the first time played hard-ball after that. A teenager boasts that she’s up at 6:00 am selling drugs on the streets and makes $1000 a day and gives her mother $300 of it. The teen then goes to school where she falls asleep during class. A young boy says he takes a gun to school with him just to have it with him. These are stories where guns, money and babies having babies are part of a culture. (It’s interesting that so many of those quoted do go to school.)

The stories paint a hopeless picture. In one story a girl seemed trapped in that drug culture when she said that her father was a dealer. Later she says that she did get out—she saved money to go to school to study music. The only steady presence is the passionate Pastor who presides over too many funerals and preaches that they must carry on and have hope.

It’s all very noble but ultimately unsatisfying because of what Awake didn’t address. Why are so many young people in these communities having babies (‘babies having babies’ is how it’s described.). Why is this a badge of honour? That’s not addressed. Where are the men? Nadia and Audette are single mothers. Where are the fathers—a stable influence? That’s not addressed. When the girl makes $1000 a day drug dealing and gives her mother $300 does the mother ask where the money came from? We don’t know. Where’s the other $700? I want to know. Does the mother of the boy who needs a gun to go to school know he has it? If not, why not? If so, why doesn’t she do anything about it? There are too many loose ends not tied up and too many strands of the stories not explored.

The staging was pedestrian—walk forward slowly and give the speech—and as a result the pacing was too slow. It gave the whole piece a sense of preciousness almost defying us not to be moved by it all. Speeches displayed emotion—grief from mothers who lost their kids; kids with chips on their shoulders. The format of verbatim theatre in this case does not lend itself to a fully formed character.

While I found the whole thing unsatisfying, the beginning was terrific. On stage was a body laid out for a funeral. From the audience a woman sitting in an aisle seat slowly sang the first few lines of “Amazing Grace.” The next few words were sung by another woman in another seat. Then the body on stage joined the singing. Then more voices rang out until the choir of singers got up from the audience, went on stage, and finished that glorious song. It was a terrific beginning. Pity the rest of the show was not up to that moving beginning.

Awake plays until Jan. 13.

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