Stage Door Review

Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers

Monday, March 21, 2022

✭✭✭

by Makambe K. Simamba, directed by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard

Tarragon Theatre & Black Theatre Workshop, Tarragon Extraspace, Toronto

March 17-April 10, 2022 in person,

March 22-April 10, 2022 online;

Theatre Aquarius, Dofasco Centre, Hamilton

April 26-May 7, 2022

“Your Journey to the Ancestors”

Makambe K. Simamba’s play Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers ran from only April 11 to 18 in 2019. That year it won the Dora Award for Outstanding New Play for Theatre for Young Audiences. Now Tarragon Theatre and Black Theatre Workshop have revived the play based on the original b current production directed by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. Many, including this reviewer, who did not see it in it first run will now, thankfully, have a chance to experience this remarkable work.

Simamba told Stir magazine in January this year, “This is not a play as much as it is a prayer and a ceremony”. That is a very apt remark. Our Fathers really has no plot and is literally structured as a ritual. When the lights rise we see the body of young person curled up in a back corner of the stage. The figure in baggy pants and a hoodie struggles to rise but then also tries to keep from floating. “Gravity is different here”, the person says.

The play’s description in the programme already tells us, but “here” is the afterlife. Part of the tension in the play is that the figure, who is male and nicknamed Slimm (played by Simamba herself), has to realize where he is, what it means and accept what has happened. As one can imagine this is a difficult task for a boy who is only 17 and was happy and carefree just before the incident happened that led him here.

He doesn’t know what he is supposed to do and wishes there were an instruction manual to help him – whereupon just such a manual appears entitled Your Journey to the Ancestors: A Step by Step Instructional Manual. From this point on the play focusses on Slimm’s carrying out each of the ten steps listed in the manual. We and Slimm realize now that he is in some sort of antechamber to the afterlife and must perform the steps listed in the manual as form of ritual to free his spirit from all worldly ties.

Neither we nor Slimm know how radical this shedding of worldly ties will be until Slimm reaches the step when he must say goodbye to all those who were dear to him. At first he does this in a very offhand way, trying to think of people he should mention and finally thinking of his brothers, his girlfriend, his father and mother (who are divorced and who he sees separately), until more and more people occur to him.

Many of the steps make Slimm recall events of the past and lead to flashbacks through which we learn of events in his short life. Signal events include upsetting his mother by being suspended from high school for possessing marijuana, pleasing his mother  by joining an aviation camp because he wants to be a pilot and driving with his father and two brothers and learning from his father how to act polite if a white policeman should pull him over.

One of the steps requires Slimm to recall his final moments on earth. By this point, if we have ignored the the promotional material for the play on not put the pieces of of Slimm’s past together, Slimm’s manner of death makes it absolutely clear that he is Trayvon Martin (1995-2012). Slimm was Martin’s handle on social media. In 2012 Martin was visiting his father in a gated community in Florida. He went to the local 7-Eleven to buy Skittles and a watermelon drink. On the way back to his father’s place and wearing his hoodie as usual, Martin was spotted by an Hispanic-American who was a volunteer for Neighborhood Watch. The 28-year-old man felt that Martin’s presence in a gated community was “suspicious”. After an altercation, the 28-year-old shot Martin in what he called self-defence according to Florida’s controversial “stand your ground law”. After a public outcry, the killer was arrested and tried for second-degree murder and manslaughter but was acquitted by a jury on both counts. This led to even greater public rage and was seen as just the latest incident of Whites killing Blacks and getting away with murder.

In one of the later steps of the manual Slimm must state his name and says he is Trayvon Martin. In another step he must name his ancestors. After some thought Slimm gives a list of more than 50 Black men who were killed by Whites, states the year each died and their age at death. A star gleams in Trevor Schwellnus’s projected background of outer space at the mention of every name. The list includes famous names like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Emmett Till, but, depressingly enough, it it also includes George Floyd (1973-2020) and others showing that Simamba has had to revise this list to keep it current.

The length of this list has both positive and negative effects. On the one hand, in case we did not know, list makes clear that the history of White men killing Black men is hideously extensive. After about 25 names we realize that Slimm is naming only those Black men whose deaths at the hands of White men are known and that this list can never be exhaustive. On the other hand, because of its length and against our best intentions, we begin not to listen. There are simply so many names, we cannot take in the enormity of it all. The names are not spoken in alphabetical or chronological order or in order of the age at time of death. While the length of the list is meant to invoke outrage that so many have died, it also, sadly, begins to numb us, just, indeed as the killing of Blacks men by White has began to numb the American public until the death of George Floyd somehow awakened people to the continuing shame of racism.

At the same time, the length of this list of deaths causes us to marvel at Simamba’s amazing feat of memory. Such admiration of the performer is, however, completely contrary to the playwright’s obvious wish that we concentrate of the names spoken and not on her. But this reaction to this list is sadly a natural reaction. Simamba does eventually have to close the list by mentioning all those unnamed, but this ending could have happened earlier and would have helped prevent both the negative effects of numbing and shifting focus from the content to the performer.

The most moving portion of the play is when Slimm asks if he can redo saying his goodbyes, this time not in a perfunctory manner but fully conscious that he is saying farewell forever to those he cared about. Simamba plays this scene with such emotion it is extraordinarily painful and heartrending to witness.

Throughout the play Simamba has given an unparalleled physical and verbal performance. The initial scenes of Slimm trying to get used to the unstable gravity of the afterlife begin the play on a note of physical comedy perfectly enacted by Simamba. The final scene of Slimm’s spirit struggling to leave his body behind seems like a task impossible to enact, but Simamba does so with the help of Shakeil Rollock choreography to turn this struggle into an athletic form of modern dance. Here Schwellnus’s projection of a body in motion too often attracts our focus away from Simamba.

As if this were not enough, Simamba also plays not just Slimm but at least eight different characters including Slimm’s friends and family members, differentiating them all clearly through changes of voice, posture and gesture. Simamba’s performance is simply phenomenal.

At the same time, Simamba is so sensitive to the nature of her subject matter that she does not wish to call attention to herself at all. At the very end of the play the video, designed by Schwellnus which has shown us written out the phrasing of each step in the instructional manual, presents us with a message that we the audience may not feel we have the energy to applaud but would rather sit for a few moments in silence. Simamba has read the audience’s feeling correctly. Much as we would like to give some sign of our gratitude to Simamba for her performance, it does feel wrong to applaud a ritual that has called to mind the shameful deaths of so many Black men.

Just as Simamba does not want the play to be about her, she also does not want the play to be solely about Trayvon Martin. This is surely why she does not even mention his real name until very near the end. Slimm says that he was murdered because his killer though that he, Slimm, was nobody. As, however, the play has demonstrated through its flashbacks and through Slimm’s final farewells, Slimm is not nobody but part of a community of family and friends that spread out from him to encompass all Black people living and dead. To kill him is to hurt everybody. All the Black men murdered through racial violence are as the title states “our father, sons, lovers and little brothers”.

Simamba’s play is in part a ritual to lay to rest the soul of one Black boy, but it is also a ceremony of remembrance for all such men who have died and of healing for those who have survived. The play is also a call to contemplate and to act for all those who have watched it unfold and to force us to ask “Why has this gone on so long?” and “What can we do to make it stop?”

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Makambe K. Simamba, © Dahlia Katz; Makambe K. Simamba © 2022 Cylla von Tiedemann, Makambe K. Simamba © 2022 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets visit www.tarragontheatre.com.