An appreciation of We Were, We Are, We Will Be From SummerWorks

by Lynn on August 20, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

What: A revised SummerWorks Festival in collaboration with Canadian Stage, to accommodate the shutdown of theatres entitled: We Were, We Are, We Will Be

When: August 18 to 23, 2020.

Where: Virtually in digital performances and in in-person performances, the locations announced to those who registered.

Why: Theatre artists and others create art and need to find a way of doing it in this time of shutdown.

Who: 10 artists from various disciplines producing productions and instillations that express how they are dealing with Covid-19. Curated by Daniele Bartolini and Luke Reece

NOTE: Because so much of these performances are experimental, exploring and entering a new reality, this will be an appreciation of what I saw and heard as opposed to a ‘formal’ review.

Usually SummerWorks is a 10-day festival of performances pieces beginning in the second week of August that covers various performing arts and installations. Most events have five performances spread over the 10-day festival. Except of course for this year.

Laura Nanni, the Artistic and Managing Director of SummerWorks had to adapt the festival to the restrictions of Covid-19 that closed theatres. She and her team have been working hard to present a festival of workshops, labs, performances and instillations that reflect how this pandemic has affected artists and by extension their audiences.

While artistic activity has been going on ‘in house’ since May for young artists to explore, experiment and collaborate, the week of Aug. 18-23 is when performances are presented to the public both virtually (digitally) and in person adhering to safety precautions involving socially distancing for example.

This one week segment of the Festival is entitled: We Were. We Are. We Will Be. It’s curated by Daniele Bartolini and Luke Reece and represents the past, the present and the future.

The Festival opened with We Were (Past) composed of three one-off performances:

story come to town: colonisation tumble down written and performed by d’bi.young anitafrika

Irin Ajomi-My Journey written and created by Philip Precious

Echoes of the Plague Times, created, written and voiced by Alina Pete.

story come to town: colonisation tumble down is a long dub poem written and performed by d’bi.young anitafrika

Wikipedia says of dub poetry: Dub poetry is a form of performance poetry of West Indian origin, which evolved out of dub music in Kingston, Jamaica, in the 1970s, as well as in London, England.

Both d’bi.young anitafrika’s performance and poem are startling. She is filmed outside, in front of a majestic tree with light steaming through its branches, and except for a circular ornament hanging down in front from her waist, she is naked.

She has recorded the poem which is played as she poses in front of the tree or bows in various formations then rises up to full standing. The bracing, bold words gush out, every consonant said crisply, vowels clearly. The delivery is not a stream of consciousness. The words are deliberately scattershot. At first I think d’bi.young anitafrika is saying the sentences backwards, then realize she is not. Regardless, the intention is clear. This is about being black, colonization, slavery, cruelty, blackness, dominance, aggression and opposition among others. The last line is a surprise, almost playful in that it’s a clear, simple sentence.

d’bi.young anitafrika is a fearless performer and vivid poet. Her language is compelling and as a result she draws the audience in and doesn’t let up until after the end.

Irin Ajomi-My Journey is written and created by Philip Precious. It’s facilitated and edited by Tommaso Branconi.

Irin Ajomi means “My Journey” in Yoruba. This film tells the harrowing journey of Philip Precious from Nigeria to Libya to a refuge camp in Italy where he is today. Philip Precious left Nigeria for a better life. The journey was full of hardship, danger, having to think quickly to save one’s life and take every opportunity. His story is so particular to him but reminiscent of so many other stories of being a refugee or being displaced.  At one point he got on an over-crowded bus that was “very, very hot.’ There was no water. He travelled for two days like that. It reminded me of other displaced people packed into cattle cars without food or water that was destined for concentration camps. Then he was put on a crowded boat to cross the Mediterranean Sea for Italy.

The film is a collage of blurry images that give the sense of the chaos of the trip and how fraught it was. Hands reach out from the crowded boat in which he was travelling to people in the water. Other images create a sense of upheaval and uncertainty.

The film has surtitles that are helpful because Philip Precious is not fluent in English. One does get the sense of the urgency of his journey, his tenacity, his resilience.

Echoes of the Plague Times is written and animated by Alina Pete. From the press information: “The past and the present collide in a visual exploration of literal and metaphorical plagues survived by Indigenous peoples and their connections to the current pandemic we all face. Award-winning queer Cree cartoonist Alina Pete combines comic books, animatics and poetry to layer what has been survived before with what must be survived again.”

I appreciated these offerings but Echoes of the Plague Times moved me the most with its poetry, imagery, use of elegant language and Indigenous connection to the earth. Alina Pete’s narration of the animated film it accompanies starts off with words of wisdom from Pete’s family and ancestors: “watch animals acting strange” for that will foreshadow a change in nature or the environment. She talked of how pipelines built in salmon spawning areas destroy the echo system. Her piece shows such respect for the land. She talks of wildlife as “types of people”, “the animal people,” the “plant people” for example.

She talks about her grandmother who as a young teen worked in a hospital in 1959 when there was an outbreak of tuberculosis. That young woman was committed, caring, conscientious and unafraid of working with patients who were so sick. That so impressed Alina Pete and one gets the sense she carried on that commitment in her own work.

The images in her animation are wonderful and evocative. She says we—all peoples—are so tightly woven together, but when there is a hole that fabric is damaged. The image of the unraveling cloth with the hole getting bigger is particularly telling.

At one point she says that she got sick. We aren’t sure if it was COVID-19 but whatever it was was serious. She could hardly move in her bed (the animation for this was particularly vivid). She had a headache that made her see big spots.

When she recovered she said that “the sunshine on her face was like a mother’s kiss”.  That image and the description of it is stunningly beautiful. The image of her hand delicately patting earth in a pot where she planted seeds and then to see the sprouts of growth later also evokes a heartening feeling.

While the subject of Alina Pete’s piece are past plagues—a sobering thought—she is also able to evoke hope for a future because of her care and celebration of life in all forms.

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