Comment: Luminato shows

by Lynn on June 26, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Recently played at Luminato, but now closed.

Time escaped me and I didn’t post comments about offerings at this year’s Luminato Festival before they closed by June 18.


From the blurb about the creation:

“Little Amal is a 12 foot partly-animatronic giant puppet which was used as the centrepiece of a performance art project called The Walk in 2021. The project was created by the British production companies The Walk Productions and Good Chance in collaboration with the South African Handspring Puppet Company (of War Horse fame).  

Little Amal, a 12-foot puppet of a 10-year-old Syrian refugee, who has travelled through 13 countries to 90 cities across Turkey, Europe and New York City.  She arrived in Toronto on June 7. She walked across the region for 5 days looking for hope and her new home. She was welcomed by musicians, dancers, children and elders, civic leaders, community organizers, newcomers, fellow refugees and you in a journey of art and hope.  

See the world through the eyes of a child who was forced to leave her war-torn home.  On behalf of displaced children everywhere, she asks that we take note, offer support and hear her message to the world: “Don’t forget about us”.  

Little Amal had been to Scarborough, Mississauga, other suburbs during her five day stay in Toronto.  On Sat. June 10 she was to appear at Berczy Park between 6:30 and 7:30 after she walked along the Esplanade. I waited for her in Berczy Park, across from the St. Lawrence Centre that was preparing for the opening of Treemonisha, the Scott Joplin opera he wrote in 1911.

The park was buzzing with families enjoying the summer weather; a choir that was singing over there, while I was mesmerized by three couples casually doing the samba to music from a boombox. A man in baggy jeans, a t-shirt and a baseball cap on backwards, danced with his partner in a form-fitting top, black tights and ballet slippers. The grace of the couple, (and the other two couples) was astonishing. Effortless. Sensual. Sexy. I wondered when one traded in the easy sway of the hips for general creakiness. Perhaps it’s something that creeps up on you.

In the meantime, I kept looking up the street in front of me for a 12-foot puppet. The time was drawing close for her appearance. From behind me, on Wellington Street I saw a charge of people running forward banging boxes and behind them there she was, towering over the crowd, Little Amal. The sight of her is astonishing. She came into the park, graceful, confident, poised, her head turning slowly to the left and right, taking in the crowd. She blinks! Her arms are manipulated by two people, each holding a pole attached to each arm. I noted that inside the structure of the puppet is a person who is manipulating her eye-lids and I guess controlling her walk. That walk was almost like floating. To see this ‘creature’, this creation, was quite moving. She did a turn of the park giving everybody a chance to look at her and take pictures, then she walked off to her next destination. Loved seeing her.


Created and performed by Ian Kamau

Written by Ian Kamau and Roger McTair

Dramaturg and rehearsal director, Aislinn Rose

Composer, music director, performer, piano and Synth, Bruce A. Russell

Tenor Saxophone, Dennis Passley

Guitar, Dyheim Stewart

Costumes Cat Calica

Filmmaker, Tiffany Hsiung

Co-sound: David Heeney, David Mesiha

Lighting, Shawn Henry

Environment designer, Javid Jah

Video designer, Jeremy Mimnagh

Loss was developed and nurtured at the Theatre Center, as part of the year-long Residency Program.

From the programme: “Loss is a deeply honest, live retelling of an intergenerational family story, written by Ian Kamau and his father Roger McTair.

This multi-media performance begins as a mirror into a winter of depression for Ian Kamau, then slowly unravels the mystery surrounding the death of his paternal grandmother Nora Elutha Rogers.

An orchestration of memories using live music, video, and storytelling—Loss is an exploration of grief in Afro-Caribbean communities, and an immersive experience towards healing shared with the audience.”

The theme of the piece might explore ‘grief in Afro-Caribbean communities’ but there is resonance no matter what the ethnicity. Ah the beauty of theatre to transcend cultural differences and find common ground no matter the ethnicity.

The main audience sits on three sides of the Harbourfront Centre Theatre. A circle of chairs is placed around the main playing area with some audience members sitting there. There are standing microphones inside the circle. The band of keyboard, guitar and saxophone are microphoned. Ian Kamau sits on a stool off to one part of the circle. He speaks into a hand-held microphone. He says that this is a performance and then opens a binder and begins to read his script in a clear, measured voice. What he is reading sounds like poetry to me that will deal with his sorrow, grief, depression, his absent, distant father; his feelings about his father and that his father contributed four poems to the evening, but it’s not actually clear which they are. Some works are introduced on the screen facing part of the audience. Videos of family scenes will be projected on the screen. Because there are people around Ian Kamau he will turn his stool slightly, so that his back is not always ‘facing’ part of the audience.

Often music will underscore the reading, often drowning out the reader. I wonder (yet again) what the sound would be like if the band was not amplified, but just played and Ian Kamau read through his microphone. I bet we would be able to hear every word.

I wonder why we need music for what really is an overproduced and over amplified poetry reading for 1 hour and 45 minutes without intermission.

Played June 14-18.

Dragon Tale

 Co-produced by Tapestry Opera and Soundstreams. Presented by Luminato Festival Toronto and realized in partnership with Harbourfront Centre.

Composer, Chan Ka Nin

Librettist, Mark Brownell

Director, Michael Hidestoshi Mori

Music director, David Fallis

Set and costumes, Jackie Chau

Lighting by Echo Zhou

Cast: Alicia Ault

Mishael Eusebio

Mike Fan

Todd Jang

Evanna Lai

Keith Lam

Grace Lee

Alyssa Nicole Samson

Plus an orchestra and a choir.

Dragon’s Tale is an opera embracing long-held traditions juxtaposed with the need to be free and engage in the world, among other issues.

From the programme synopsis: “Dragon’s Tale is the story of a Xiao Lian, a young Chinese-Canadian woman who faces a difficult choice: Honour her family’s traditional past or embrace a more modern present. Her ailing father wants her to stay home and take care of him and respect tradition. She wants to go off with her friends.

Xiao Lian must travel into the ancient past to answer questions about her own life and future in the modern world. By summoning the spirit of one of China’s greatest poets, Qu Yuan, Xiao Lian learns the significance of the ancient dragon boat festival of Duanwu and her family’s deep connection with Qu Yuan.”

Under the baton of Musical Director, David Fallis the singers and chorus were stirring and compelling. Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori used the whole stage and areas in and around the audience of the Harbourfront Centre Concert Stage to great effect. Set designer Jackie Chau created several moveable platforms that shifted the action from the modern world to the ancient world.

While Mark Brownell’s libretto was in English surtitles were used to ensure the whole audience got the full benefit of the story and the important aspects of the story. While the cast wore body microphones the sound occasionally was fuzzy, when a microphone might have been muffled or compromised, hence how important the surtitles were. How then to explain how banners representing an ancient king were so high on the stage, they obstructed the surtitles, preventing people, either close up or sitting at the back, to actually read the details. Didn’t director Michael Hidetoshi Mori or set designer Jackie Chau sit in the theatre during rehearsals to see if the panels obstructed the area where the surtitles were projected? Frustrating.  

Played June 15-18, 2023.


TO Live and Luminato Festival Toronto Present, at the Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, Ont. A Volcano production, in association with the Canadian Opera Company, Soulpepper and Moveable Beast.

Composed by Scott Joplin

Book and libretto adapted by Leah-Simone Bowen/Co-librettist, Cheryl L. Davis

Arranged and orchestrated by Jessie Montgomery & Jannina Norpoth.

Stage director, Weyni Mengesha

Choreographer, Esie Mensah

Conductor, Kalena Bovell

Set by Camellia Koo

Additional set design by Rachel Forbes

Costumes by Nadine Grant

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Cast: Neema Bickersteth

Andrea Baker

Cedric Berry

Nicholas Davis

Ashley Faatoalia

Marvin Lowe

Ineza Mugisha


Kristin Renee Young

Scott Joplin wrote this opera in 1911 and set it just after the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery. It has rarely been done. This reimagining of Scott Joplin’s opera does wonders to illuminate how ahead of his time Scott Joplin was.

This production celebrates many ‘firsts’: It has a creative team who are all Black: it has a new book and libretto by Leah-Simone Bowen, with co-librettist, Cheryl L. Davis, new orchestrations by Jessie Montgomery, directed by Weyni Mengesha, choreographed by Esie Mensah, conducted by Kalena Bovell, with an all-Black orchestra and cast lead by the always compelling Neema Bickersteth as Treemonisha.

The story is simple: A runaway slave carrying her baby in her arms, is shot in the back by a slave owner chasing her. The mother struggles to hide her baby in the hollow of a tree for safety, and then dies. Twenty years later there is to be a wedding by a young woman named Treemonisha. She is the baby, grown up. She was found by two decent people and raised as their own. When Treemonisha learns the truth—that the two people who raised her are not her birth parents—Treemonisha is hurt and confused that the truth was held back from her. She leaves to find out who she is and who her mother is. Her betrothed, Remus who belongs to the community of Freemen, goes after her. Treemonisha seeks knowledge of the Maroons, dwellers in the forest, for information. The two communities are always at odds with each other, not trusting them.  In the meantime she falls in love with Zodzerick, a Maroon medicine man. But Remus kills him. Treemonisha returns to her community where she brings both communities together to live in peace. Because of that Treemonisha is chosen as the leader who can bring stability to both.

Because opera/music is not my forte I won’t comment on the opera in specific terms, but will comment on the theatricality. I thought the whole enterprise stirring and beautifully sung, with Neema Bickersteth leading the enterprise with her soaring, crystal voice. She is also an accomplished actor, realizing the anguish of a young woman trying to find her roots and her history.

Camellia Koo’s set of the complex tree and its branches and offshoots is both mysterious, and mythical. Choreographer, Esie Mensah creates vibrant, sensual movement of this accomplished cast that is evocative and arresting. It’s always thrilling seeing her work. The whole endeavor is brought together by director Weyni Mengesha. She has a vivid sense of image, picture and the world of the opera. If I had a quibble it’s that occasionally the production seemed static, but I would offer it’s the piece itself, the story, that is static. But just a quibble. Being in that theatre for this opening night was a thrill.

There is a comment at the end of a note by the Treemonisha Team that is so important to consider. It says: “You, the audience, are encouraged to embrace the music in any way you see fit! Cheer, talk back, applaud—because this is an opera for everyone”. Amen and Hallelujah. If I’ve learned anything by seeing theatre of different ethnicities, different nationalities, different, attitudes, it’s that there is not one way to appreciate the artform, there are many, and they all are valid and important. I think it vital that we all be in the same room to experience the many, different ways of appreciating a form of art and learn from that difference, and not separated into separate groups. That separation just seems regressive.

I loved that the opening night audience of Treemonisha, multi-ethnic, mainly Black, dressed to the nines and ready for celebration, did laugh loudly where they believed something was silly or not right; talked back when they thought something warranted it, and stood and cheered instantaneously at the end, as did we all, in complete celebration at this rarely done work.  

Played June 6-17, 2023.

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