Stage Door Review
The First Stone
Sunday, October 9, 2022
by Donna-Marie St. Bernard, directed by Yvette Nolan
New Harlem Productions & Great Canadian Theatre Company, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto
October 6-16, 2022;
Great Canadian Theatre Company, Ottawa
April 11-23, 2023
“If you sacrifice everyone who will be left to save?”
The First Stone is an incredibly powerful new work by Donna-Marie St. Bernard given a deeply imaginative staging by Yvette Nolan. The play is part of St. Bernard’s ambitious “54ology” as she calls it, a much snappier term than the Greek-derived “pentacontatetralogy”. St. Bernard, a Grenadinese-Canadian, has set herself the formidable task of writing one play for each of the 54 countries in Africa. I have seen only one of these, Cake (2017) dedicated to Niger, which did not impress. The First Stone, however, is of an entirely different order in terms of the quality of the writing, the clarity of the action and the overall breadth of its conception.
In The First Stone St. Bernard takes on a subject so horrific that one might think it impossible for a stage play. The subject is the use of child soldiers in Uganda. Child soldiers are not unique to Uganda. In fact, according to the Brookings Institute “Twenty-three percent of the armed organizations in the world use children age 15 and under in combat roles” and “By the turn of the 21st century, child soldiers had served in significant numbers on every continent of the globe except Antarctica”. According to Unicef between 2005 and 2020, more than 93,000 children were verified as recruited and used by parties to conflict, although the actual number of cases is believed to be much higher.
Uganda stands out in its unenviable position of having a resistance group, Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), founded in 1987, that relies more extensively than any other armed group in the world on the use of child soldiers. The Journal of Peace Research found that for over two decades 90% of the LRA’s forced recruitment was of children. Even though the Ugandan Civil War (1980-86) was declared over in 1986, some groups such as the LRA have never signed the peace agreement and continue to fight.
The First Stone depicts the kidnapping of children, the cruelty they suffer, the horrors they must inflict to be deemed worthy of belonging to the group and the pain of being vilified and shunned once they are rescued or escape from the child army. St. Bernard’s brilliant solution of how to deal with such disturbing subject matter is making it abstract and by employing the full range of Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekte (alienation effects) to disrupt the natural tendency of audiences to identify with the characters on stage.
St. Bernard’s first level of abstraction is to tell us nowhere (except in her Note from the Playwright) where the action takes place. This may seem odd in terms of St. Bernard’s “54ology”, but given the widespread use of child soldiers it seems that St. Bernard wants us to view the situation in Uganda as part of a general practise. The only hint we get of where the play may be set is after the Land Acknowledgement when Cameron Davis projects the names of the First Nations who lived the region of Toronto on one panel of Jackie Chau’s set and projects the name Acholi on another. Those well-versed in their knowledge of the First Nations of Africa may recall that the Acholi not only live in northern Uganda but have been the most impacted by the forced recruitment of children as soldiers and sex slaves.
St. Bernard’s second level of abstraction is to give the main characters generic names – Ancestor, Mom, Boy, Girl, Baby, Auntie, Grandad. Only two characters unrelated to the central family have proper names. As in Brecht each scene has a title and a précis of the action that is shown at the start of the 22 scenes, one interlude and the epilogue. One might think that this technique dissipates any tension and that is exactly its purpose. St. Bernard and Nolan follow Brecht closely in this because this because, like Brecht, they do not want the audience to get caught up in the emotions of the situation (which with this subject matter could be shattering) but to look rationally at the situation and how it progresses. St. Bernard and Nolan want us to ask, “How did this start? Why does it continue? And how can it stop?”
Also like Brecht’s Epic Theatre there are no sets. Jackie Chau does provide a semicircular dais at the back in front of which two screens can be moved. There is also a screen above the dais and one on either side of it. The dais is the preserve of Grandad and its elevation and separation from the rest of the stage symbolizes his position in the community. The only other feature on stage that could be called a “set” is a shiny, jagged sided strip on the stage floor that proceeds from the dais to the front of the stage, widening as it goes. Most often, characters like Boy and Girl treat this jagged strip as if it were a stream they have to step over. Symbolically, however, it looks like a chasm that has opened on the stage, and, not accidentally, this is where Ancestor appears and laments the war that has devastated the village.
Other than these permanent features the “set” is drawn in chalk by the cast as the conclusion to the joyous celebration that starts the play at a time before the rift occurred in Acholi society. This is beautifully executed by Nolan and by choreographers Indrit Kasapi and Pulga Muchochoma. By the end of the flurry of drawing there are gardens and there is the outline of a round hut on either side of the stream or rift – the one stage right is Mom’s, the one stage left is Auntie’s. Lighting designer Michelle Ramsay shines a spotlight precisely the size of each circle when the hut is in use.
After the joyful singing and dancing that begins the action, Ancestor (Tsholo Khalema) appears in the stream/chasm to explain that when he threw the first stone he had no idea what repercussions it would have nor that the negative effects of this act would last to the present day. St. Bernard has Ancestor speak in rhymed couplets to set him apart from the other characters. In a great effect, St. Bernard and Nolan have an over-life-sized projection of Courage Bacchus representing Ancestor Echo rise behind him and sign what he says, thus emphasizing the universality of the situation.
The subsequent action focusses on the happy everyday life of Mom (Dorothy A. Atabong), and her two children, both meant to be under age 18, Boy (daniel jelani ellis) and Girl (Makambe K Simamba). Since Mom is busy with Baby (symbolized by a gathered cloth) at home, Boy and Girl have to go to fetch water. Girl teases Boy because she knows that he is interested in Uma (Nawa Nicole Simon), a girl of his own age, and she in him. On the other side of the stream, Boy and Girl can also visit Mom’s sister, Auntie (Uche Ama).
The negative aspect of these characters’ lives is that the rebel army of child soldiers located near the village is controlled by Mom and Auntie’s father, Grandad (Michael-Lamont Lytle). Mom’s husband and father of Boy and Girl, whom the children admire because of his uniform and gun, is away from home with another rebel group. When the nationalist forces draw closer, children of the village start disappearing in greater numbers than before. For safety, Mom sends Boy, Girl and Baby to stay with Auntie, but the three are kidnapped.
Through descriptions and symbolic actions we see how the children are verbally, physically and sexually abused with non-compliance punishable by mutilation or death. In turn, they children kill civilians or commit horrific crimes against them.
St. Bernard’s particular interest, however, is what happens to Boy and Girl once they escape the army and attempt to rejoin life in the village. Unsurprisingly, they are not welcomed back. The village regards Boy and Girl and others like them as murderers and worse, as animals who have committed beast-like atrocities. Just when it looks hopeless that Boy, Girl and the other former child soldiers will ever be able to live in the village, Boy hits upon a way that the children can heal themselves. Boy says, “You are not what you have done”. The children realize that they are not defined by their deeds and break out in singing and dancing.
Needless to say, this conclusion comes far too quickly and is far too easily. A study in Lancet in 2004 found that 97% of former child soldiers in Uganda suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Hearing from Boy a way to distance oneself from one’s past actions will realistically not lead to a sudden outbreak of joy. PTSD takes years of therapy to overcome and sometimes never is overcome. Rejection of former child soldiers from their community only makes the situation worse.
The best solution for St. Bernard would be to omit the children’s premature celebration entirely, let Boy’s words and their implications settle in and skip directly to Ancestor’s threnodic Epilogue in which he provides a sombre, more ambiguous summary of what has happened in the play.
The First Stone presents a wonderful unity of speech, song, dance, movement and design. Tsholo Khalema’s Ancestor speaks with infinite sorrow in his voice over the effects of what his first stone has caused. Dorothy A. Atabong as Mom and Uche Ama as Auntie movingly shift from contentment to distress when the worst happens to those they care about the most. Makambe K. Simamba and daniel jelani ellis are convincing as children rough-housing and quarrelling over petty things. The way Simamba portrays Girl’s decision to kill to prove her worthiness to belong in the children’s army is absolutely chilling. The way ellis depict’s Boy’s total withdrawal into himself when he returns to the village is both understandable and frightening. Nawa Nicole Simon’s illustration of Uma’s nature before her family was killed and after when she was mutilated shocks us with the extent of the difference between the shy, innocent girl we had seen before and the fury filled with rage and revenge we see later.
The one weak link is unfortunately Michael-Lamont Lytle as Grandad. He speaks St. Bernard succinct words too quickly for them to sink in and cannot conjure up the aura of menace that causes his child soldiers to fear and obey him.
Donna-Marie St. Bernard has taken on a hugely important topic and, except for its too-easy resolution, has brilliantly imagined how to embody it in a play. In this she is aided by the visionary direction of Yvette Nolan who masterfully leads a cast of 15 in acting out this wrenching drama. The world has been distracted by many events during the past three years, but the use of child soldiers is against the Geneva Convention and is considered a war crime. St. Bernard has done a great service in so effectively calling our attention to the fact that such heinous practise still continues not just in Uganda but in war zones around the world.
Photo: Makambe K. Simamba as Girl and Dorothy A. Atabong as Mom; daniel jelani ellis as Boy; Tsholo Khalema as Ancestor and projection of Courage Bacchus as Ancestor Echo; the ensemble of The First Stone. © Cylla von Tiedemann.