“If you see God before me,
You better tell them I’m coming
And I have questions.
– From I Got Questions by Belladonna the Blest – also known as Donna-Michelle St. Bernard.
Questions are at the heart and soul of Makambe K. Simamba’s solo piece, “Our fathers, sons, lovers and little brothers”.
As she searches for meaning and reason in the vicious murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black man murdered on February 26, 2012 by a white vigilante on a dark and ugly street in Sanford, Florida, she offers a piece of burning theater which is perhaps, unsurprisingly, a prayer.
Simamba’s devastating scenic journey from that devilish street to the outer regions of the sky is pretty much a cry for a better, inclusive world.
It is, as it is, a powerful experience. It is undoubtedly theater designed to disturb.
Simamba, a proud Zambian, wrote this article because she felt the need to tell Trayvon’s story. It suggests a youth that likes Skittles, hip hop and sometimes dancing on the wire. He has his issues with authority figures and school. She does not whitewash her sometimes angry and aggressive personality.
What she does, however, is perform her own piece with such whirling speed that she pulls you into the vortex of her open rage and despair.
And yes, the fact that she is a woman playing an aggressive young man never seems wrong.
“The whole piece exists as a commentary from a female point of view, inspired by disquiet,” says Simamba. “The show is strongly told through movement. African Hip Hop and more. I learned in theater school to embody my own being in what I do. I wanted to move as I move myself. You see, I really found the character in the exploration of my own body.
Simamba sits on the ledge of the stage at the Tarragon Theater in Toronto where her play has just ended. A silent audience walks out of the space obviously affected by what they have seen.
And that’s exactly what Simamba expects. She doesn’t traditionally bow at the end of the show for a very good reason.
“I see the show as a prayer,” she says. “In a way, it should be a religious experience.”
The Tarragon production which ended April 10 played ahead of upcoming performances in Hamilton at Theater Aquarius’ Studio Space from April 28.
Simamba quietly talks about why she wrote the play and what it means to her. She talks about what it will convey to all audiences, although there is a specific program for black theatergoers.
“I wanted to create a space for black people to cry. I feel like every time a black guy gets murdered, we don’t really get to deal with it. We protest and call for accountability, but there is so much work to do to prevent these things from happening. We see names, but we forget them beyond the hashtag. I wanted to create an opportunity to remind us of the humanity here.
The title refers to ancestry, to men of the past as well as to those of the present.
Towards the end of the play, Simamba intones the names of the many murdered black men from George Floyd to Martin Luther King, somewhere in a long and forgotten past. It’s a long, slow litany. As she utters these names, a tear slowly rolls down her clammy cheek.
Then something magical happens. One of the stars projected against the evocative backdrop suddenly buzzes with light, burning brightly for each name called out. It is a moving and transformative moment; one that reflects the deeper, almost metaphysical nature of the piece.
Later, Simamba circles the stage in a dance of despair, as projected images of life’s wasted possibilities fly across this same backdrop, suggesting there might be something better, beyond the troubled world we now live in.
As Trayvon, referred to by his nickname Slimm throughout the play, searches for meaning at the sudden end of his life, he interrogates a God he considers savage. He seeks a vision of a benign sky, but gets lost in a myriad of questions and terrible fears.
A magic book seems to point him towards answers, but they don’t always seem to make sense. During Simamba’s play, however, they lead him to a place of liberation, of letting go, of seeking peace.
At the center of the piece is a perfectly heart-pounding performance by Simamba that leaves her emotionally and physically drained.
It’s filled with such loving detail that every move, every quirk of discovery, brings you closer to the depth she feels.
His performance is superbly supported by Trevor Schwellnus’ simple yet dramatic video and sometimes creepy line art settings. Andrea Lundy’s painterly lighting bathes the scene in heightened realism. And Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s direction is always truthful and never overtly showy.
It has been some time since the studio space at the Aquarius Theater has been used for the inclusion of plays like this. Luckily, it was illuminated by Sky Gilbert’s marvelous “Pat and Skee”: a piece of memory that allowed this dead space to rise like Lazarus. Now, here we go again with “Our Fathers”.
The theater in Hamilton is richer for this event.
Will everyone like “Our Fathers?” I suspect not. But, those who love him will undoubtedly love him madly.
Our fathers, sons, lovers and little brothers
Aquarius Theater, 190 King William St.
April 28-29-30 and May 3-4-5-6-7 at 7:30 p.m. and May 1 and 7 at 1:30 p.m.
$25: Seats are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Doors open half an hour before the start of the show
Masks must be worn. Vaccination certificates required