Review: Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers

by Lynn on March 22, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Tarragon Extra Space until April 10, 2022, and Chez Vous (on line, on-demand) March 22-April 10, 2022.

Written and performed by Makambe K Simamba

Directed by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard
Set and video design by Trevor Schwellnus
Lighting design by Andrea Lundy
Sound design by Diana Reyes
Original music composition by Maddie Bautista
Choreographic consultation by Shakeil Rollock

A stunning piece of theatre. An elegy to African-American men who have died before their time because they were Black.

The Story. From the theatre’s description for context: “Slimm, a seventeen-year-old Black boy in a hoodie suddenly finds himself in the first moments of his afterlife. He calls out for God. God does not respond. What happens next is a sacred journey through the unknown, as Slimm grapples with the truth of the life he lived and the death he didn’t choose.”

Not only does Slimm have to grapple with the truth of his life, he has to follow various instructions for a manual honouring ancestors that earn him the right to continue into the afterlife and beyond.  

The Production. Rap music is throbbing in the space as the audience enters. A montage of projected images of white lined drawings on a black background is flashed on the wall of the stage (kudos to Trevor Schwellnus for his video design). They look like street-scenes in a neighbourhood with cars, houses, lawns, etc. What we are looking at becomes clear as Slimm journeys through his story. There are small structures around the stage. Are they miniature houses? Not sure.

When the lights go down to signal the beginning of director Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s production for what seems like a full minute one of the rap songs we heard before is played again with the attendant projection montage. I think that odd. Is this a test of the patience of the audience? To make them uncomfortable waiting in that long darkness? The intention is murky.

When the lights come up two legs stick out from the wings as if the person is laying on the ground on their back. The legs twitch as if the person had been unconscious and is now suddenly conscious.  The body movement is erratic, twitchy, perhaps indicative of injury, until we see the whole body of Slimm (Makambe K Simamba) appear. He is dressed in sweatpants, trainers and a hoodie and he is hurt. Slimm staggers around the stage, his balance is off and a leg is injured.

Over the course of Makambe K Simamba’s compelling, emotional-charged play, in which she also plays Slimm, Makambe K Simamba will so completely inhabit the body of Slimm that there is no question that we are watching and listening to a 17-year-old-young man.

Slimm has died (no spoiler alert, we are told this as soon as he begins talking). The play unfolds slowly, methodically and delicately. We find out later what happened that brought him to this moment. What we and he need is to go on the journey of discovery that led him to this point, and to acknowledge what else must happen, according to various guidelines, in a manual that is illuminated on a pedestal on the stage. Various instructions are digitally written on the back wall of the theatre for the audience to see.

Along his journey we learn that Slimm’s parents are divorced. He lives with his mother. From his description he likes both parents and they are both loving people, strict but loving. Slimm might have gotten into difficulties in school but he was not a bad kid. In a moment of frustration his mother sends Slimm to live with his father in Florida, for a bit of time. Slimm was a good friend to his pals and an attentive boyfriend. Because he went to live with his father, he could not take his girlfriend to the prom. In the gentlest of voices, Makambe K Simamba as Slimm expresses that regret in a call to the girlfiend.

On the journey there are 10 guidelines Slimm must follow, among them is honour the ancestors and what would you say to the person who did this to you. The scene honouring the ancestors is a breathtaking bit of theatre handled with sensitivity and steely resolve by Makambe K Simamba and director Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. As Slimm honours his ancestors Makambe K Simamba’s movement is fluid, uses the space but never pulls the focus from what is being said. What Slimm would say to his murderer is equally breathtaking because it’s not full of vengeful hate. It’s full of conviction and perception—Slimm mattered to a lot of people. A quibble is that occasionally words are dropped in soft expression. That might be how Makambe K Simamba wants Slimm to sound, but it’s equally important for the audience to hear every word.

Makambe K Simamba beautifully captures the energetic grace of Slimm, his basic decency, his boyishness and the bubbling aspects of his young life. In early death there is confusion but a need to understand which he does at the end. Slimm grows in maturity when he remembers those he loved and who loved him and names his ancestors.

Makambe K Simamba also is a terrific writer, capturing the life and maturity of a young man who died too young and slowly reveals who Slimm was at the end. Makambe K Simamba captures the gritty language of that young man and at times the writing is poetic.

Comment. It’s an interesting perspective to see Our Fathers, Son, Lovers and Little Brothers.  in Canada when it honours African American men and boys who died before their time because they were Black. The play illuminates the obvious but unspoken point—a Black person is marked before they leave the house because they are Black (whether they are American or not). They are treated differently because they are Black. Slimm was an ordinary, rambunctious kid but was treated differently because he was Black. Those who are white can’t even approach understanding that reality. In her play, Makambe K Simamba gives the audience an inkling of that great divide. She also creates a portrait of a young life that mattered but was snuffed out too soon.  

A Tarragon Theatre and Black Theatre Workshop co-production

Runs: In person: until April 10, 2022

Chez Vous (online, on-demand): March 22 – April 10, 2022

Running Time: 65 minutes, (no intermission).

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