REVIEW: Personal Narratives in The Watah Theatre Double Bill Find Community Affinity
Mae Smith reviews The Watah Theatre’s Double Bill, a double feature of artistic director dbi.young anitafrika’s Once Upon a Black Boy and Najla Nubyanluv’s I Cannot Lose My Mind:
Prior to Najla Nubyanluv’s world premiere performance of her original play I Cannot Lose My Mind,Watah Theatre founding artistic director dbi.young anitafrika reads an excerpt from her play Once Upon a Black Boy. The play tells the story of Tsuki, a young boy navigating issues of race, class, and Black masculinity in Toronto with his mother Cha, recently diagnosed with cancer. anitafrika takes the stage, adorned with large earrings bearing Africa’s geographical silhouette. She is equipped with her laptop; armed with spirit and charisma. anitafrika performs the roles of both mother and son, mixing song, poetry, and monologue, and demonstrating her talent as a performer and dub poet. Her portrayal of Cha is enrapturing, as Cha uplifts and supports Tsuki as a young child. When Tsuki reaches six feet tall in his teenage years, Cha fights to keep him safe, to prevent him from becoming “another adult Black male” subject to unwarranted violence — a fear all too real for Black families today.
When the lights go down on anitafrika’s performance, I can just make out her lingering on stage for applause before swiftly moving to a seat in the front row. When the lights return, Nubyanluv immediately begins her own performance, entering from an aisle. I am immediately struck by the sight of her wearing a wedding dress, already deeply immersed in the Afrofuturist world of I Cannot Lose My Mind.
The play, which Nubyanluv began developing at the Watah Theatre School, takes us on a fictionalized journey of Nubyanluv’s experiences with mental illness, oppression, and her quest to heal. As the sole performer, Nubyanluv tackles every character, distinguishing them with distinct voices. From the booming certainty of the antagonistic, Western-educated “esteemed Dr. Donald Wexford” to the supportive and comforting voice of Dr. Jada Black with her subtle Jamaican accent, Nubyanluv creates clear hierarchies and divisions between characters that are never visibly together onstage. As Nubyanluv states in the talkback, the piece is extremely personal to her, and its creation was a form of healing over the years; the hums and snaps of agreement that come from the audience, however, make the story’s widespread impact and resonance clear.
Both pieces were created following the anitafrika method’s eight principles, listed on anitafrika’s website as “Self-knowledge, Orality, Rhythm, Political content and context, Language, Urgency, Sacredness, and Integrity.” Dub poetry, in which anitafrika is both prolific and a virtuoso, shares some of these characteristics, most notably the commitment to politics and the relevancy of issues to the community.
This double bill was my first exposure to The Watah Theatre, but many in the audience were very familiar with the artists and their work, some having seen Nubyanluv’s work in its preliminary stages. The talkback following the show shone a light on the relevancy and importance of Watah’s work to the Black community in attendance, representing issues and versions of themselves not commonly seen on other stages. Together, Once Upon a Black Boyand I Cannot Lose My Mind are exemplary of Watah and anitafrika’s distinct styles; individually, they are stunning pieces of storytelling, uplifting both artist and audience.
Mae Smith is an actor from the GTA. She is currently studying Dramatic Arts at Brock University in St. Catharines. Although she concentrates in performance, she is interested in theatre as a whole and all its parts.