Review: Having Hope: A Hand Drum Song Cycle and Romantics Anonymous

by Lynn on September 24, 2020

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Plural of She Festival

Performed in backyards of private residences in Barrie, Ont. Sept. 23-Oct. 4, 2020.

Having Hope: A Hand Drum Song Cycle

Created and performed by Nicole Joy-Fraser

Performed Sept. 23-24, 2020.

Wonderful, inclusive, welcoming. An incredible life journey of the performing artist Nicole Joy-Fraser. An important lesson of hope and tenacity in the life and practice of an Indigenous artist.

The Story and Production. Having Hope: A Hand Drum Song Cycle is part of The Plural of She Festival of plays created and performed by women and feminine-identifying artists. It’s curated by Maja Ardal—a terrific performer-writer in her own right—Her show The Cure For Everythingis part of the festival.

She’s taking a cheeky dig towards the English language when she calls the festival The Plural of She.  She reasons there is no distinctive plural of the word “She” in English. In ordinary times we would have used the plural “they.” But these aren’t ordinary times. Ardal frowns on using the word “they” because as she says: “’They’ is only now offered as the pronoun for many individuals on the gender spectrum.”

Sounds good to me.

Having Hope: A Hand Drum Song Cycle is written and performed by Nicole Joy-Fraser.

She and the show are terrific. She embraces her audience, welcomes them in what ever diversity is presented. She never assumes. Her story is one of hardship, a feeling of displacement, a seeking of who she is and full of her joy. Her curiosity about her roots and her seeking of her truth are quite astonishing. She is a gifted story-teller and the story squeezes your heart it’s so full of challenges.

She began the show with a drummed song of welcome, that welcomed the audience to the out-door space. She explains the song is sung in Anishinaabemowin. We learn she is Métis, part Cree part European, of the Bear Clan. She was put up for adoption by her birth parents so that she would have a better life. She was adopted by a white couple but her adoptive father introduced her to Indigenous culture by taking her to the art gallery—The McMichael Gallery, the Ontario Art Gallery, etc. She loved the art and thought she might be an artist.

Then she became familiar with other artforms and went to school to be an actress/singer. It’s a life that took her to London, England and then back to Canada. In England she had to explain to people that while she didn’t ‘look Canadian’, she was. Her patience with ignorance is astounding—she was asked if “Indians” still existed in Canada?”

When she was seventeen, she learned the secret of her birth parents and other aspects of her family. This led her to finding out about her Indigenous culture by consulting elders and leaning of their practices.

It’s an incredible story, sometimes harrowing, sometimes wounding. You can hear your heart thumping as more and more stunning detail comes out.

The title—a Hand-Drum Song Cycle– is a bit of a misnomer. There are not as many songs as one expects from something described as a “song cycle.”  There are perhaps four or five songs in the whole show, with her story taking up most of the time. I would call it a woman’s journey to finding her-self first–with songs added—perhaps the songs could be more evenly disbursed in the story.

Each song is meaningful—a song of welcome or good-bye for example—and she sings in a pure soprano voice, full-throated, brimming with emotion.  Nicole Joy-Fraser sang two songs in succession, explaining that the second song is a Veteran Honour Song and definitely is different than the one before it. She said usually with the second song the audience is encouraged to stand and honour the veterans. As she didn’t stop for applause after the first song of this duo, we didn’t really know she had begun to sing the second song, so knowing when to stand was awkward.

I think her idea of standing and honouring Veterans is wise and right but the audience should be given a cue on when to do it easily and without confusion.

First we want to applaud her efforts so perhaps she should just break them up. Then the audience knows the second song is their cue to stand. As this is Nicole Joy-Fraser’s first attempt at her story I will certainly cut her slack.

Comment: Overall, I loved Having Hope: A Hand Drum Song Cycle. We don’t often hear stories like this first hand from an Indigenous point of view and it’s important we do. I loved the ceremony of the whole endeavor. I got there early so I saw Nicole Joy-Fraser do a smudging ritual for the whole space—cleansing it. When the audience was seated Nicole Joy-Fraser welcomed all of us.

I loved the open-hearted, inclusive effort to embrace and welcome the audience into the ceremony and the circle. I have been to a few other shows with Indigenous artists and the audience was treated to the same ceremony of inclusion.  In these troubling, divisive times that lesson of welcome without barriers is so important to learn. At the end of her show she thanked us for coming and listening to her story, and she held out her arms and said, “My relatives.”

It was a privilege to see and hear Having Hope: A Hand Drum Song Cycle.

Having Hope: A Hand Drum Song Cycle played in Barrie, Ont. in the backyard of a private home Sept. 23-24.

For details about the rest of the “Plural of She Festival” please go to:

Romantics Anonymous

This plays on line until Sat. Sept. 26. For details go to:

Written and directed by Emma Rice

Based on the film: Les Émotifs Anonymes

Based on an original design by Lez Brotherston

Lyrics by Christopher Dimond

Music by Michael Kooman

Choreography by Etta Murfitt

Lighting by Malcolm Rippeth

Sound and Broadcast Design by Simon Baker

Cast: Marc Antolin

Carly Bawden

Me’sha Bryan

Philip Cox

Omari Douglas

Harry Hepple

Sandra Marvin

Laura Jane Matthewson

Gareth Snook

Pure, sweet delight with a touch of tart. Lip-smacking good. And it was about love and chocolate. An unbeatable connection.

NOTE: Romantics Anonymous is a musical that was recorded live on Tuesday at the Bristol Old Vic for broadcast over the week and will end Sat. Sept. 26.

The Story. It’s about Angélique who is a gifted chocolate maker, but is so shy that she gets anxious and when she gets anxious she faints (She attends a support group “Emotions Anonymous”). She makes chocolates for kind Mr. Mercier but he had to promise her he would not tell anyone about this genius who makes his chocolates.

Then he dies and Angélique is bereft. She has no job. She has no prospects. She is too shy to go out and look for work. Her impatient mother keeps harping at her. The mother even calls Angélique ‘a turd.’ Now that’s harsh.

Jean-René is a man who is painfully shy and awkward and runs his family’s failing chocolate factory. His hands sweat when he is in any situation. But he knows his chocolates.  He bought Mr. Mercier’s chocolates not knowing that Angélique made them.

Angélique comes to work for him thinking it’s to make chocolate, but in fact it’s as a salesperson. No one wants the chocolates. They are very traditional and boring. The business is failing.  What can be done? They need a miracle.

Angélique is too shy to tell them she knows a thing or two about chocolate. How they solve the problem is one of the many charms of this musical.

The Production. It starts with a bit of cheek. We are told to lay on some of our own chocolate but not to eat it until we are given a cue. It starts off with characters speaking French with no surtitles. Be patient, there is a method to Emma Rice’s ‘madness.’ She is setting the stage, the place and the space. We see the meticulousness in which Angélique (Carly Bawden)  makes her chocolates and we get the sense of wit and pace in the beginning scenes. And with almost a wink to the audience to eat our chocolates they segue into English.

Is this a saccharin-sweet (sorry) musical? It is not.  It is prickly, irreverent, and even rude (remember Angélique’s mother calling her ‘a turd’).

Jean-René’s  (Marc Antolin) staff is so exasperated with him that they are pretty pointed behind and in front of his back. It’s painfully obvious that Angélique and Jean-René are made for each other but writer Emma Rice is not going to make it easy. It’s a relationship full of regret, insecurity, awkwardness, but also love and acceptance.

When Angélique meets Jean-René she doesn’t faint and his hands don’t sweat. If that’s not true love, I don’t know what is.

Christopher Diamond’s lyrics are brilliant in capturing the essence of a taste or the fear of ‘doing something’ or not following your dreams.  When trying to describe some of the chocolate that Angélique has made we have this lyric: “No language can capture that silky, smooth rapture.” Or this: “If you don’t do anything, nothing will go wrong.” Or this one: “Life isn’t life when it’s lived in regret.” Michael Kooman’s music is just as captivating.

Carly Bawden as Angélique is sweet, anxious, feisty and dear.Marc Antolin as Jean-René is stiff, awkward, insecure and eventually charming too. Gareth Snook is kindly as Mercier, hilarious as Mumbler, and over-the-top as Madame Marini.

The whole production is a light swirl of activity thanks to Emma Rice’s direction. It’s like watching as delicate meringues are being made.

Comment. If I can’t be in a theatre watching this wonderful, charming show live, then seeing the live filmed version of it is ok by me. I thought the whole production was a treat, not too sweet, some nuts, some wonderful spicy flavours rounded off with terrific performances. If I can’t be in a theatre, this is the kind of filmed version I want to see in its place. And it’s about chocolate so it’s perfect.

Romantics Anonymous plays on line until Sat. Sept. 26.

Check details from the Shakespeare Theatre Company website at:

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