Stage Door Review 2023

Maanomaa, My Brother

Monday, April 17, 2023


by Tawiah M’Carthy and Brad Cook, directed by Philip Akin

Canadian Stage & Blue Bird Theatre Collective, Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs, Toronto

April 14-30, 2023

“Wo bε yε me nua” (“Will you be my brother?”)

Canadian Stage and the Blue Bird Theatre Collective are presenting a touching new work, Maanomaa, My Brother, created by Tawiah M’Carthy and Brad Cook with Anne-Marie Donovan and written and performed by M’Carthy and Cook. It the story of a Black boy and a White boy who become best friends in Ghana, separate and meet again 25 years later. The story is simple enough but what makes the play a delight is that it is told through spoken dialogue and movement in equal measure, the movement often conveying more of the boys’ feelings as boys and men than the dialogue.

The hour-long play interleaves the separate travels of Kwame (M’Carthy) and Will (Cook) back to Ghana for the funeral of Kwame’s grandfather with scenes of Kwame and Will’s childhood. Both boys were born in Ghana and both went to the same school. Both were guests at the home of the other. Each would get lost in playing with the other to the extent of neglecting his homework.

The joy of their inseparable lives as boys is contrasted with the awkwardness of their meeting 25 years later. We feel some sort of resentment has grown between the two during their separation. This forms the mystery that drives the action. We want to know what changed two blissfully happy young boys into two men who seem barely able to get along.

The two had to separate when Will’s father was transferred back to Canada. But before just that, an incident occurred when they were boys that set Kwame’s family against Will’s. I wouldn’t reveal this incident in a review in any case, but even so, the principal flaw of the play is that this incident is not made clear enough. An incident of such impact on the boys’ lives really needs to be explored in greater detail since it obviously still affects them 25 years later.

That point aside, Maanomaa is a refreshing play to see. While so many recent plays have been underscoring the divisions between people in an accusatory manner, Maanomaa paints a portrait of the common humanity that unites us. We have become so used to believing in unspoken aggression or desires as motivating people’s interactions, it is unusual to see a play where neither is a factor. Kwame may be Black and Will may be White, but the play is not about White versus Black. It is about friendship. The only reference to racial bias is when the Black children at Will’s school call Will “obroni” or White.

M’Carthy wrote and performed Obaaberima (2012), an excellent solo play about a young man coming out in Ghana, but it would be a mistake to search for that theme in Maanomaa. Kwame and Will are two boys, once fast friends, who later fall out, but homosexual desire has no part in the play. Again, it is about friendship. Friendship is a difficult relationship to depict on stage because, jaded as we are, we assume there must be more to it. Kwame and Will as children know their relationship is special but the one relationship they see as a model is brotherhood. Each asks the other, “Will you be my brother?”, each agrees and each boy’s family accepts the son’s friend as a new family member.

The story of Maanomaa may be simple but what the show demands of its performers is not. Both M’Carthy and Cook play at least ten different characters each, including the young and adult versions of themselves. Cook was not born in Ghana like his character, yet he speaks Twi (the language of southern Ghana) convincingly as well as speaking English with a Twi accent. Both actors play Kwame’s grandfather with deep-toned voice and each other’s mother as well as a host of background figures.

The fact that both play characters male and female, old and young, nullifies the criticism that both should not play both White and Black. The show is built around the freedom from racial prejudice that the two share as boys and how that is paralleled with the freedom the two actors have in the range of roles they play. The structural question the play asks is when will the adult Kwame and Will regain the freedom from constraint that they once felt as boys and that the performers demonstrate in their acting.

The acting of M’Carthy and Cook is also freed from words. Cook’s main activity in the theatre has been as a puppeteer (he manipulated the head of the main horse Joey in the play War Horse) and as a teacher of movement. Cook and M’Carthy are equally matched in movement and some of their activities, such as the boys’ game of who can touch a stone first, are as minutely choreographed as modern dance.

There is no set except for an elongated wooden diamond-shaped platform that, like any place in the playing area, can become any place the characters say it is. Here they are aided immensely by André du Toit’s incredibly inventive lighting. Director Philip Akin gives each exactly the right pace and gauges their boys’ awkward silences as adults as perfectly as their roughhousing as children.

Maanomaa is a portrait of the kind of close friendship between people of different races that should exist and does exist. The portrait implicitly asks why such friendships should be seen as remarkable and not just a matter of course. While the play should make the cause of the friends break-up clearer, it nevertheless holds out hope that a deep childhood friendship can be rekindled even after an estrangement of 25 years. It’s a warmly conceived play, beautifully acted, beautifully “danced” one has to say, with both actors capable of conveying nuances of meaning through the slightest change of voice or gesture. More depth of feeling is conveyed in Maanomaa’s sixty minutes than in many plays twice or three times the length. It’s a gift for all lovers of theatre.

Note: The programme comes with a translation of words and phrases from Twi used in the show. What’s missing, strangely enough, is the word “maanomaa”. From what I can gather, it means “I listen” or “I am listening”. If that is true, the playwrights’ point is that listening is the key to developing and keeping a friendship, a point that could be expanded to include all relationships between people.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Tawiah M’Carthy as Kwame and Brad Cook as Will. © 2023 Dahlia Katz.

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