New local work from diverse perspectives

Edmonton Fringe is a great place to discover new work by local artists. The program (2021: the digital listings on the Fringe website) flags new work and indicates the hometown of the producing company (2021: they’re almost all local or nearby this year, with very few touring artists).

Yesterday I saw three new works by local artists, One Song, Chanzo, and Deafy. All of them were fictional narratives in various genres, and all of them benefited from the lived experiences of the creators.

One Song was advertised as a staged read or workshop performance of a new musical, but was significantly more polished than that description suggessts. Daniel Belland (composer and co-lyricist) played keyboard to accompany the four singer/actors, Jaimi Reese, Manny Agueriverre, Ceris Backstrom, and Josh Travnik. The actors carried scripts but moved through the story and knew the music well. The mood of the story reminded me a bit of Dear Evan Hansen – kind young people getting themselves into believable awkward difficulties, well-meaning adults on the sidelines being vulnerable themselves. Jaimi Reese is spot-on as the wise and feisty single mother to a young lesbian (Agueriverre) with an open door/ear for her daughter’s best friend (Travnik) – even before the song Not This I was thinking the mother probably had her own interesting story. Ceris Backstrom plays three of the mother’s friends, brought in (consensually) to provide some queer perspectives beyond the mother’s own expertise. Backstrom’s acting was good, distinguishing between music-nerd Paul in bow-tie, drag-queen Toast, and lesbian AIDS activist Jen. All of them provided some LGBTQ+ context and incidental education (the QR-code-accessed show program provided some footnotes for audience members curious about some of the details). Agueriverre and Travnik’s characters are about fourteen. Through them we explore some nuances of sexuality-coming-out decisions without the high-stakes consequences of bullying or romance, with a clear message of everyone getting to make their own choice of how/when to share this news. Calla Wright wrote the script and co-wrote the lyrics.

The melodies and accompaniment were interesting, melodic, and in a modern-musical-theatre vein. The duet between Reese and Agueriverre late in the show was particularly strong. I thought there was a bit too much info-dump from Backstrom’s characters, but at the same time I appreciated learning a bit more about LGBTQ+ musicians and activists.

Chanzo is a play written by local playwright, dramaturg, graduate student, and director Mukonzi Musyoki. The title character (David Shingai Madawo) returns from Canada to Kenya after his father’s death, without warning his sister (Onika Henry) that he’s bringing his white Canadian girlfriend Charlotte (Jasmine Hopfe) with him. Henry’s character Bezo speaks many of her lines in Swahili, but no translation is needed to see that she is furious with her brother and the situation and full of contempt for who she thinks Charlotte is. Predictable conflicts ensue and secrets come out. The characters were compelling and I longed for them to understand each other and come to a good resolution. Yet as a viewer I was also satisfied with the more ambiguous ending of the script. One thread of the plot was familiar from a scene written by Musyoki and performed by Madawo in the late-2020 roving theatre piece Here There Be Night.

Deafy is a solo show written and performed by Chris Dodd, directed by Ashley Wright, with choreography by Ainsley Hillyard. It’s told in a mix of spoken English, ASL, and supertitles/captions. The character Nathan Jesper, on an informational speaking tour about being Deaf, decides to abandon his usual lecture script and tell stories about communication. Many of the stories are amusing anecdotes about how he and his friends get by in a hearing-centric world – the one about his friends helping him take his drivers’-license road test is particularly funny while still disappointing me with how unhelpful the bureaucracy is. The stories gradually begin to focus on his search for belonging, in a world where he is too deaf or in a group where he is not Deaf enough, as the choreography, music (Dave Clarke), and arguments with the unseen captioner escalate to express his increasing distress. As with the Swahili in Chanzo, I didn’t feel I was missing too much because I don’t understand ASL.

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