Tag Archives: christina nguyen

Horizon Lab: Where are your stories?

I went to the theatre tonight.  Six months ago that would not have been unusual.  But this is 2020.  Tonight I went to the Citadel Theatre with my mask on, gave my name to the front-of-house staff instead of handing them a paper ticket, and I was back.  I saw some familiar (covered) faces in the audience, including at least two other arts bloggers and many regular theatregoers.

Horizon Lab:Where are your stories is a set of performances celebrating the stories of Albertan BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and disabled artists.  Citadel Associate Artists Mieko Ouchi, Helen Belay, and Tai Amy Grauman welcomed the audience, with Grauman giving a moving personal acknowledgement of the land, the Treaty peoples, and her connection to the land.  Then there were five ten-minute performances, with a stage crew member rearranging set pieces and mopping anywhere that had been touched, in between.  During the third interlude, audience members were actually applauding the stage crew member.

My favourite parts of the performances were the parts where the performers acknowledged pandemic life or acknowledged that something unusual was happening on the stage in this production.  “I’m always a consultant here; I didn’t believe you actually wanted me to be a performer now” says Carly Neis in Part of This World, which she created along with Patricia Cerra and Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks.  The disabled actor, accompanied by her service dog Oakley, demonstrates some barriers to theatre attendance from the box-office counters to the elevator design, spars with stage-management on God-mic, and concludes by acknowledging that performing on this stage is the start of her happily-ever-after.

In The Boy and The Sun, created by Lady Vanessa Cardona and Todd Houseman, Sheldon Stockdale plays a racist Alberta farm-boy who has died of COVID-19 after hosting a 300-person Big Valley Jamboree on his property (“COVID doesn’t kill people!” he exclaims indignantly) and is being held to account by a Trickster figure (Christina Nguyen).  Please Don’t Put Me in a Situation, by creator-performers Elena Belyea and Mohamed Ahmed with Mahalia Carter-Jamerson as an additional creator, was the most non-linear of the pieces, jumping exuberantly between scenes of different stories and then tying them together.  The Book of Persephone, performed by Tasana Clarke and created by Clarke and Mac Brock, was a clever retelling of the mythical character Persephone in a country-music context.  I liked the performer’s use of a plaid shirt, to represent the men they dated and also their own empowerment.  I occasionally had trouble hearing the performer and would like to see this one again to get what I missed.

The last performance, Delay, by Richard Lee Hsi and Morgan Yamada, starts with the two performers, in grey cloth masks, expressing their inner narratives of self-doubt and uncertainty during the pandemic through pre-recorded voice playback.  Will I remember what to do with my hands when I get back on stage?  Are they hiring me because I’m talented or because of tokenism?  How do I learn all those lines and what if I forget?  As you would expect from these two performers, the piece also included some lyrical and powerful movement.  They walk in the river valley – with untouched snow early in the pandemic,  “detouring around a 15-person picnic” more recently – and sit on the edge of the stage evoking the old End of the World viewpoint.  At one point the performers touch hands.  On August 2020, I found that simple gesture profoundly unsettling, and was reassured that they soon reached for hand sanitizer and did an ostentatious and humorous version of the familiar purifying ritual.

Admission was free, with the Citadel requesting donations to their BIPOC Artistic Fund.   Theatre is not really back to normal, but theatre is moving forward, and that’s a good thing.

In the Heights! Scona Theatre production at the Westbury

This year’s big musical by the Strathcona (High School) Theatre Co. is In the Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s creation with book by Qiara Alegria Hudes, which opened on Broadway in 2008.   It was a good choice for this company and the venue (Westbury Theatre), where a huge crowd of exuberant performers and an interesting detailed set had enough space to tell the story and the risers were filled with parents, friends, and members of the local theatre community.  The Heights refers to the north Manhattan neighbourhood of Washington Heights, a mostly-Dominican neighbourhood. The set for the Scona production had two three-story brick buildings flanking some steps and an elevated walkway at the back of the stage, then a projection screen showing views of the bridge in the background.  The main floors of the buildings were small shopfronts behind metal blinds (“grates”), a beauty salon, a bodega or convenience store, a car service (dispatched taxis) and one graffiti-marked storefront that just stayed closed.  That was never mentioned, but it added to the sense of a neighbourhood in transition.  Upstairs were windows and balconies, which usually had people hanging out of them or leaning on them or looking down from them.  My first thought on looking at the set was that it reminded me of Sesame Street, because that was the only place I’d seen that kind of streetscape as a child.  (That and my brother’s Fisher-Price village.) The main characters are introduced by the young bodega owner, Usnavi (Aidan Burke), whom I thought was a particularly strong all-around performer in this show.  Usnavi’s young cousin Sonny (James Kwak) is an amusing comic foil.  The manager and employees of the beauty salon (Siobhan Galpin, Christina Nguyen, Jade Robinson), struggling owners and ambitious worker of the car service (Kirkland Doiron, either Monica Lillo or Jocelyn Feltham and Evans Kwak), and “everyone’s abuela” Claudia (Manuela Aguerrevere) all have big enough parts that we get to know their stories.  The female lead is Nina (Olivia Aubin), daughter of the car-service family, who is returning home after her first year at Stanford University. I was also impressed by the dance moves and general stage presence of the actor playing Graffiti Pete, but there were two performers platooning in the role and no sign in the theatre telling which one we were seeing.  Either Robbie Wickins or Michael Sulyma.

There were at least 65 energetic performers in the cast as well as a pit band of 14.  This meant that there was always lots to watch, although the ensemble members did not distract from the important plot points or lead character solos.   The Latin dancing in the nightclub scene was great, and the large-crowd dancing in the song “96,000”.  Jordan Mah is credited as AD/ Assistant Choreographer.  Linette Smith directed and choreographed, and the music director was Jenn McMillan. I thought this show was an ideal choice for this company, taking advantage of not only some talented young individual performers but the depth of talent and enthusiasm allowing the director to create a joyful busy community in a high-density neighbourhood.  The story was universal enough to grasp without knowing anything else about the demographics (business owners struggle in a shifting block, city utilities are unreliable in a disrespected neighbourhood, and there is a lot of pressure on the young person who has the chance to succeed outside.)

Attached are some recent photos from the real Washington Heights neighbourhood in upper Manhattan, NYC.  You can see the grates over closed stores, the convenience store, and the grey and black fire hydrants.  Don’t expect this level of background research for all my theatre reviews (especially the one set in Uganda!) but I loved having this prep for my NYC vacation and finding the connections.  And now, back to Broadway!

image image Subway to Washington Heights