by Lynn on September 20, 2023

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at Fort York, National Historical site, Toronto, Ont. Playing until Oct. 7, 2023.

Co-written by Ahmed Moneka and Nicky Lawrence

Directed Ahmed Moneka

Cast: Dillan Chiblow

Andrew Chown

Rudy Ray Kwaku

Nicky Lawrence

Cassel Miles

Tara Moneka (understudy for Ahmed Moneka)

Revelatory and life changing (and I’m not exaggerating).

Background. Ahmed Moneka and his writing partner Nicky Lawrence were invited by Toronto History Museums to expand on an earlier work they created inspired by the history of the War of 1812 centering on Fort York. The focus was to honour “the voices of Indigenous, Black S2LGBTQ+ and artists of colour and sharing stories obscured by conventional history books.”

As Ahmed Moneka and Nicky Lawrence say in their programme note: “As we discovered the multiple voices that helped shape this country, it struck us, that in the telling we consistently found it being told from only one perspective. This we realized must change; for us to know where we are going as a nation, we must tell the true story that reminds us how we became one in the beginning, one that includes us all.”

The Stories and the Production. As the co-writer’s eloquently put it, Spaciousness tells some of the stories “obscured by conventional history books.” It tells the stories of those considered ‘other.’ I love seeing/hearing stories by people who do not look like me, to learn another side of the narrative.

The play takes place at historic Fort York in Toronto’s downtown, on the other side of the paved and curved roller-blading-skate-boarding path under the Gardiner Expressway. You walk along a path to the end of the ‘welcome’ building, walk up several steps and land on a huge expanse (spaciousness?) of grassed grounds, on which are several historic buildings, all part of Fort York. There is a subtle, but constant, sound of bombs and cannons exploding. This is the background ‘noise’ of the fort. We should never forget what this place was for—defending the city in the War of 1812.

The audience gathers in a long room with chairs on either side of the length of it. There are about 40 people in the room. I have never seen such a diverse, multi-ethnic group like this in a ‘theatre’ before. I don’t recognize anyone who I have seen in my regular theatre going. The diversity is wonderful.  

As we settle the stage manager says there will be an understudy for the role of Survivor of Modern War. This part was to be played by Ahmed Moneka, the director and co-writer of Spaciousness, but for this occasion the understudy is Tara Moneka, Ahmed’s sister.

She wears a beautiful white ensemble. She says that she has experienced war in her home country of Iraq three times: when she was two years old, when she was 14 (when the Americans invaded) and when she was 18, civil war. What she doesn’t tell us (I looked it up) was that in Baghdad she was a celebrated singer who gave concerts. The military said to her family that if she did another concert the family would be arrested. As a result they fled to Turkey and then came to Canada as refugees. Ahmed Moneka was already in Canada and the family followed. Tara Moneka said that she became a Canadian citizen. We all applauded. It was very moving.

The audience is divided in two groups and each group is lead around the site into various buildings by a person holding a lamp to light the way. The pace is not rushed but there is walking and there are steps into and out of buildings. There is seating in each building for the audience. A scene is enacted by a character in each building.

I note that Tara Moneka alternated following the two groups around the space of the Fort, but did not enter the buildings. Her presence at the end of a group is like a constant reminder of the Survivor of Modern War, which she is.

We go from building to building watching scenes of people who were involved in the War of 1812. In the Gun Powder Magazine (that’s the name of the building) we hear mournful trumpet music coming from the other side of the wall of the building.  Private William Jones (Rudy Ray Kwaku) appears as if by magic. He is a young Black man in a soldier’s uniform who plays the bugle and writes his mother a letter full of poems and about the horrors of war. It’s a beautiful performance of innocent people caught up in war.

In another building a worried mother, Emma Jones, is played so movingly by Nicky Lawrence, who is dressed in historical garb, sings of freedom.  She frets about her son William, a sweet-faced young man who writes poetry and plays the bugle. But she hadn’t heard from him in six months and so wrote to his commander of his Black troupe asking if he knew where her son was. Connections are made in the individual stories.  

In another building, Private Samuel Keating (Andrew Chown) was sleeping in his bunk and woke with a start and jumps down from the bunk to tell us his story. He was from Dublin and enlisted with his father to fight with the British because they paid you to join and the money would help his mother and all his siblings. He didn’t even know where ‘upper Canada’ was when they set out across the ocean to fight.

Miskwaaki, also known as William Yellowhead (Dillan Chiblow), has his back to us, looking out a window when we enter. He is an imposing man in traditional Indigenous garb. When he turns his face is ‘painted’ with stripes of vegetable colouring. He was the chief of the Chippaweans  and leader of the Deer clan. Miskwaaki led his people in taking arms in defense of Upper Canada with the British because they said they would honour promises to his people. He was thoughtful and compelling.  He wanted to give his people “Mno Bimaadiziwin (A good life) Miskwaaki wondered if the British would keep their promise. The irony of the question was palpable.

The group then goes to the farthest building in the evening, and enters a room that looks like a formal dining room. A long table is beautifully set for about 10 people or so. A Black man enters, fastidiously dressed in pants, vest, shirt cravat/tie, spats and gleaming shined black shoes.

This is Richard Pierpoint (Cassel Miles). When Richard Pierpoint was 16 years old, he was sold into slavery from what is now Senegal. He was eventually ‘bought’ by British officer name Pierpoint (given his name) and trained to be Pierpoint’s valet.  When Richard Pierpoint was much older he wanted to go back to Senegal where he was from, but was denied. He thought he might be granted his wish because he prospered and created a Black troupe of soldiers who fought in the war. He talked of getting a letter from a grieving mother wanting to know where her son Will was. Pierpoint remembered Will but also knew he disappeared. (Not deserted) but disappeared. The stories comes full circle in a way.

There is a courtliness to Cassel Miles’ playing of Richard Pierpoint. I mention the shined shoes. I know Mr. Miles’ work from seeing him as Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy last year. Hoke was a Black man applying for the job of chauffeur to Miss Daisy, an irascible Southern woman. Hoke’s suit was ill-fitting (it was a hand-me-down from someone else), the tie was old but his shoes were gleaming because Cassel Miles shined them every performance. There was pride in Hoke as a human being because of the way Cassel Miles played him. And that care and pride was in the small detail of the shined shoes. The same care went into Richard Pierpoint: fastidious, careful and shined shoes to a dazzling sheen.

Then we all went back to the original building. We sat in the seats. The lights went out and our Tara Moneka, the Survivor of Modern War, appears holding a lit lamp. “Can you see me?” she asks in the glow of the lamp. We say yes. She asks if we can see the person next to us. We can’t. It’s too dark. Then on cue, a curtain is pulled across one end of the room to reveal the various characters we have seen, all holding a lamp up to their face. This adds more light to the room.

Tara Moneka notes that the audience is very diverse–true. She says that was how the country was formed–by all these different stories. And she told us to hold the lamp up and share the light and value the diversity, inclusion and equity. That audience embodied that idea 100%. Spaciousness might be telling the stories of ‘those obscured by conventional history books’ but it invites and embraces everybody to listen, appreciate and consider.

I thought the message was so hopeful. For me the show was revelatory. I was euphoric at its message, possibilities and the wonderful way it was told,  as I walked across the grass and down the stairs to my car. But I was also overcome with the emotion of it all, the stories of selflessness and sacrifice and I wept all the way home.

When you least expect it, a theatrical miracle.

Toronto History Museums presents:

Plays until Oct. 7, 2023.

Running Time: 90 minutes (site specific-no intermission).

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