REVIEW: The Watah Theatre’s Lukumi is a call to action and a celebration of Black resistance and resiliance

Toronto, Ontario

Signy Lynch attends the world premiere of d’bi.young anitafrika and The Watah Theatre’s afro-futurust dub-opera Lukumi, playing now in the Tarragon ExtraSpace:

This review is an experiment. It’s a response to a pattern of theatre criticism that often presents the opinion of one person as an objective measure of a show’s worth. In focusing on star ratings, and seeking above all to define what is good or bad in a production, these reviews often seem more interested in evaluating a piece’s commercial worth than exploring its artistic contributions. To de-centre my experience, and to give readers what I hope is a deeper engagement with the work, some of the cast members of Lukumi have kindly shared their perspectives. These perspectives, which provide a different kind of insight into the show, are to be read alongside my experience and should be considered just as much a part of the review.

Signy, reviewer: One of the first things that struck me about Lukumi, the final installment in playwright/composer/performer d’bi.young anitafrika’s Orisha Trilogy, is its shocking urgency. The dub opera is an uncompromising celebration of Black resistance and resilience, even as it presents a call to action, warning us of the impending environmental disasters facing humanity.

In a post-apocalyptic landscape (brought richly to life by designers Rachel Forbes and Michelle Ramsay), the remnants of humanity are forced to live in caves and hide from the brutal new world order. From this darkness, a hero, Lukumi (played by anitafrika), emerges to fight against the capitalistic forces which have destroyed the planet, razed natural landscapes, and caused an epidemic of infertility through toxic spills. The show follows Lukumi as she undertakes a vision quest to the Ancestor Tree in order to save the world, while resisting .

As I watch parallels emerge, clear and often chilling, between the fictional world of the play set in 2167, and the fraught political climate of today. Soldiers of the capitalist super conglomerate The One World Army chant “you will not replace us,” to the Black rebels they fight, echoing the words of the neo-Nazi protestors in Charlottesville earlier this year. Meanwhile, Lucius Dechausay’s film work presents the contemporary political and environmental moment through an affecting montage (featuring Trump, Kim Jong Un, and fracking) that makes current events seem a credible start to the apocalypse. Equally prominent are parallels between contemporary activists and the Ahosi rebels, whose songs – co-written by anitafrika and Waleed Abdulhamid – and movements – choreographed by Dr. L’Antoinette Stines – occasionally sample popular protest songs, linking their actions to an important tradition of Black performance and protest and reminding us that these protest movements might be our only hope facing the oncoming environmental devastation. In recognizing that the same forces that cause institutionalized racism and mass incarceration in the West are also responsible for climate change, the show makes clear that all these struggles are connected, and that anti-racist methods must inform any efforts to confront ecological destruction.

Lukumi is as spectacular to watch as it is politically poignant. The show takes the form of a dub opera, a performance style that mixes Jamaican popular performance forms with a rich dub tradition. The resultant piece is visually and aurally luscious and operates on multiple levels of meaning-creation, for me particularly the sensory, gestural, spiritual and the mythological. There are strong performances from the entire cast, most of whom take on multiple roles including the Ahosi Mino (the survivors and rebels of this post-apocalyptic world); the animals who confront Lukumi on humanity’s environmental impact; and the Orisha, deities in the Yoruba pantheon.

In the second act, after being chosen for the journey, Lukumi makes her way through eight layers of the earth to find the Ancestor Tree. The journey Lukumi takes is not only physical, but also emotional and spiritual and is played by anitafrika with an enrapturing vitality. Through the teachings of the animal guides, Lukumi gains the confidence and assurance to face the lack of clear solutions the Ancestor Tree provides—a journey of personal development that echoes the principles of anitafrika’s own Anitafrika Sorplusi Method. However, her transformation from uncertain hero to empowered leader does not seem to signal a victory for all humankind, but rather serves as a challenge to the audience. As Lukumi leaves the theatre with the Orisha pantheon at the play’s end, she leaves the audience with the weight of our own actions and decisions. Lukumi is a hero, the show seems to say, but she is not our saviour. Instead she models what each individual audience member must do to meet the environmental and humanitarian challenges ahead, a task that the piece makes clear is the individual responsibility of all.

For me, a real source of the performance’s strength and – despite the dark and dire subject matter – its ultimate hope is the way it ties contemporary issues to age-old myth, storytelling, and tradition. One way the show frames Lukumi’s journey is as the mythical journey of the Orisha Oshun. It is this divine scale that allows Lukumi to succeed (where other shows that attempt to address climate change have failed) in both capturing the massive scale of the problem and giving the show enough weight to confront it – and to even imagine possible solutions.

(Left to right) Uche Ama, Savannah Clarke, Sashoya Shoya Oya. Photo by Ahmed Barakat

Uche Ama, Actor (Ahosi/Buffalo/Oya)
Uche is a queer, black performer.

Q from Signy: What does the piece mean to you?

This piece means everything to me because I come from a musical theatre background and my experience with theatre has not always been as spiritual, as connective with my cast, as connected to my history and my heritage—I’ve never experienced something like that doing a show. So this experience changed my world; it’s changed my perspective of art. It’s changed my perspective of what I want to do as an artist because my whole life I’ve been like “I want to be a musical theatre performer,” it’s what I want to do, and I love it. And I still love it but now, because of what this show is, I feel like there’s nothing like this out there. Maybe I need to start writing it; maybe I need to start creating it with some of the people in this cast. So this show definitely means a lot. It’s close to my heart, very close to my heart.

Q: What message do you want an audience to take away from the show?

The message I want them to take away is “Stop, and look”. We as humans in the city are so fixated on the go go go of life, and “I’ve gotta go here, I’ve gotta go here, I have to do this, I have to do that,” and coming here and taking in what that does to the human race really helps us see how easy it is to forget about things that used to be important. Once upon a time, environment and our earth was something to fight for—we wouldn’t be here without the earth—it’s so important so I’m curious as to what happened to let that importance fall by the wayside. So that’s a message that I hope the audience goes away with.

Q: What effect do you hope Lukumi has on an audience?

I hope they’re taken aback. I hope they’re taken aback, and I hope it makes them ask questions. I really hope they stop and they’re like “Wow, what am I doing? What am I doing right now to make this an issue? What am I doing to feed this problem?” I say to myself for the last month, since we started working on the show, “Lukumi is everywhere”. And climate change is everywhere. Especially the weather that we’re experiencing right now. It’s September and it goes from being 30 degrees to today where it’s like 17 degrees and you want to wear a sweater and a scarf, and next week it’s going to be 30 degrees again. So, stop, question. That’s what I hope.

Q: What advice do you have for an audience who is encountering the dub art form for the first time?

Listen. And ask questions, if you have questions. I would also recommend reading that article that Amanda Parris wrote in CBC about what dub is, the history of it, the importance of it in the Jamaican culture and why it is what it is. Even a person who kind of knows dub or has seen d’bi’s shows in the past, that article really brought everything to light and prepares you for what you’re going to experience here, I think.

Q: Do you have anything else you want to add?

Come see the show! Come see it! You’ll be moved, you’ll be excited, you’ll come with questions AND you’ll leave with even more!  There are no answers here. None whatsoever. And you’ll probably find yourself online when you go home, and that’s definitely what we want. Google, find reputable resources, and research things that you’re curious about if you don’t understand something. Don’t be afraid to raise your hand in the talkback because that’s why we have a talkback!! No fear! Break the ice!

Lukumi cast. Photo by Ahmed Barakat

Aisha Bentham, Actor (Ahosi/Crow/ White Mask/Yemoja)
Aisha Bentham is a Toronto-based (Ajax) artist/creator.

Q from Signy: What effect do you hope the show has on the audience?

I really hope that they enjoy it. I mean, we are talking about some really heavy, deep stuff in this show and I pray and hope that people will take that in; but, as well, I just want people to enjoy the show. It’s beautiful. The music is so much fun, and the visuals and the different characters that we all play. I just really want people to enjoy it. And also come into this show with no expectation. Because this type of theatre is not like every type of theatre. And so, just coming in with an open heart, because really that’s the most important thing, having an open heart. And not coming in ready to judge.

One thing that I think is never to be taken for granted is the fact that we all go through change in different ways. Like I said, this is a big show and we’re talking about some really heavy stuff, and even as myself as an actor in this show, I still have moments of like, “oh my god”, and it’s always new, even though I’ve been doing this for so long. And so I don’t take it for granted that some people, it may not land for them right away; but like I said, I think a big thing is have an open heart and come in with the option for things to hit you. With the option. Because when you come in being like “Nope, okay, I’m here, they’re there, this is their experience, this is not my experience,” really coming in with the option of being like, “This could be my experience,” or, “This actually is my experience”. But for some people it takes a little bit longer…We had a talk back last night and we had our director Eugene Williams talking about dub art form, and I’m still sitting with it, too. I’m not of Jamaican descent but that doesn’t matter. The form is still coming out of me in ways that I’m still grappling with, and being like, “Okay, what is this? How am I saying this? Where does this live?” …. Just come in and be open-hearted.

Q: Do you have a favourite part of the show?

This part of the show when the Ancestor Tree comes and starts to sing her song—the Ancestor Tree’s played by Najla [performer Najla Nubyanluv]—and Lukumi is about to start her journey, and you have all the Ahosi Mino on the stage, and the Ancestor Tree’s singing to her and she’s saying “Come to me Lukumi” as if she’s serenading her to come to her. And the drums are going and it’s all very—every time it’s different and every time it’s so organic, and real. And it really transports you (at least myself as an actor on stage) into a space of—it’s like you’re not here in Toronto, Ontario at 8:43pm. Your space and time is no longer this solid form, it’s malleable. And it really transports you into this other space, and I love it. I can never anticipate what’s going to happen and I think that’s the coolest part about that moment for me.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to say?

Climate change, deforestation, mining is so real. I think that’s the hardest part for people to really grapple with. Because we’re not touching it. We’re not next to a family of trees getting uprooted to put a condo or a building. So just reminding ourselves that this is very real. And the closer that we get to earth, the more that we will really hear its heartbeat. I know that’s very poetic, but we need to do that more. And that’s going to look very different for every person. You know, maybe people, that’s when they go up to their cottages every weekend. Or maybe people just can’t live in the city, have to live in the suburbs or up North. But whatever that means, you need to get closer to the earth to hear its heartbeat because it speaks to you. That’s it.


Author Bio: Signy Lynch is a PhD Student in Theatre and Performance Studies at York University. Her research investigates how direct audience address in contemporary performance can help audience members and performers to negotiate the complexities of inhabiting a twenty-first century globalized Canada. She is a member of the Centre for Spectatorship at the University of Toronto and is a board member of Cahoots Theatre.

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