by Lynn on March 12, 2024

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Tarragon Theatre, co-presented by Tarragon Theatre and lemonTree creations, Toronto, Ont. Plays until March 24, 2024.

Written by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard

Co-directed by Yvette Nolan and Cole Alvis

Set by César El Hayeck

Costumes by Des’ree Gray

Lighting by Michelle Ramsay

Sound design and composer, Janice Jo Lee


Give It Up:

Uche Ama

Tsholo Khalema

Megan Legesse

The Smell of Horses:

Christopher Bautista

Indrit Kasapi

Tsholo Khalema

Note: Playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard has set herself a herculean task: to write a play set in each of the 54 countries of Africa. The double-bill of: Give It Up and The Smell of Horses are but two of her 54ology.

In these two plays we get a glimpse into the world of Angolans and Guineans, from the point of view of the captives and the captors; those tortured and those doing the torturing. In Give It Up two women share a small cell in an outpost that does not like protesters.  Yol (Uche Ama) is the older and more knowing of the two. Ada (Megan Legesse) is younger, almost too naïve to be afraid. They both belong to a women-protest group in which they refer to themselves as  “Sarah,” perhaps to protect themselves from divulging their real names.  They had to deliver a message to a third woman, to warn her of the approaching military. The message was not delivered.Yol frets about the third woman’s safety.

A skittish guard, Saad (Tsholo Khalema) comes regularly to the cell to unlock the door and take Yol away. When she returns she is battered, bruised and limping. At one point Yol is so hurt she can’t walk properly so Saad carries her on his back. Tsholo Khalema as Saad, is a contradiction: a guard in a prison, wary of these women, but secretly compassionate.

We don’t know who is torturing Yol. We don’t hear screams or see it happen. This is an interesting theatrical decision: not to show the actual torture, but to see the escalating physical damage to Yol after she returns to the cell.

In The Smell of Horses we see the situation from the point of view of the soldiers on duty at the outpost: Adam (Christopher Bautista), Beech (Indrit Kasapi) and Saad (Tsholo Khalema). Saad is the low man in ranking there; Beech is above him and Adam is above Beech. The use and abuse of power is obvious in the relationships of the three soldiers with Adam exerting his authority over Beech and Beech sneering at Adam behind his back. As Adam, Christopher Bautista is quietly imposing and formidable. Indrit Kasapi as Beech uses charm to get along with Adam and a bit more attitude towards Saad to keep him humble and on his toes. Each man has secrets about the others and bides their time before they are revealed.  

Writer Donna-Michelle St. Bernard has created in Yol and Ada two women who cope with their situations in different ways. They are fearless in different ways too. St. Bernard is deliberately vague on the details of the situation—there are extensive historic notes in addition to the programme for further information.

The same can be said of the three soldiers in The Smell of Horses—with Saad a cross over to both plays since he interacts with the women prisoners and his superior officers. They are each interesting in how they deal with the isolation and their jobs guarding the outpost.

The writing seems unnecessarily repetitive, especially in Give it Up. I wonder if this is deliberate, to give us a sense of the sameness of the days for those women, but always wondering when the jail door will open and more torture will happen. Both plays could use judicious cutting and tightening to strengthen the message.

Since The Smell of Horses ‘mirrors’ the activity in Give it Up then more attention should be paid to both of them. At one point in Give It Up Ada has occasion to slink along an underground tunnel. She does it at a careful pace. But in The Smell of Horses we see the three soldiers above the tunnel talking with Ada slinking along the tunnel below. Only she is going at a glacial speed to accommodate the extended speeches of the soldiers above her in the office. That scene in particular and both plays in general should be revisited to edit in the flabby moments.

César El Hayeck has designed an intruiguing set of the small cell and the murky back halls of the outpost with two huge slabs that are pushed and pulled to change their position. I have no idea what those slabs are for. Michelle Ramsay’s lighting is evocative of the murky world of prison that is means to debilitate the prisoners. The costumes by Des’ree Gray is provocative as well, with Janice Jo Lee’s sound also adding to the forbidding aspect of the prison.

As always, Donna-Michelle St. Bernard ‘s dialogue is bristling with feeling, but tightening is in order to strengthen both plays.   

A Tarragon Theatre and lemonTree Creation presents:

Plays until March 24, 2024

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes. (1 intermission)

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