REVIEW: Black in Canada and Bremen Town at Next Stage offer something for everyone

“America’s less racist sibling” is a sentiment that often surfaces when Canadians are confronted with the existence of racial injustice. But what does this belief mean in the larger context of our country, and what do we perpetuate when we parrot it? Black in Canada explores this discourse with a blend of motion and sound.

Black in Canada is a mosaic of vignettes and movement pieces which interweaves poetry and archival audio with dance. Through this mix of movement and storytelling, choreographer Shameka Blake and the Artists in Motion (AIM) company paint an intricate portrait of what it means to be Black in a country that so frequently denies the continuing impacts of its deep-rooted anti-Black racism.

We are introduced to each dancer and their personal styles of movement not through music, but through words. Marquisha Sparkes-Whonder, Kayla-Renée Wilson, Diane Jean-Louis, and Onija Bennett are powerful presences onstage as they talk about what being Black in Canada means to them while using their bodies to express what their voices cannot. Audio documentary and testimonial tracks narrate their movements and illustrate pictures of how historical events can penetrate the lives of present-day Black Canadians. 

Each dancer is barefoot and outfitted in deep brown tones and at times, the lights merge their clothes with their skin to create a single shade. This lighting design and the empty stage evoke imagery of nakedness and vulnerability.

In one vignette, Sparkes-Whonder, Wilson, and Jean-Louis move while reciting poetry on Black femininity. In another, Bennett is solitary on stage as he dances while describing being pulled over by police. Like the dancers’ movements, each person’s life experience is unique but together, they form a complex image of the culture and history that Black Canadians share. They are a collective built from individuals.

Despite the content of racialized oppression, Black in Canada is not a mournful piece. It is a triumphant one. These artists, despite what blocks they may face, still create art. In between motion and song, there are moments where they laugh together and moments where they cradle one another. They speak on the impact Black Canadians have made, including Mary Ann Shadd, the first woman in this country to become a newspaper publisher. The dancers experience joy as one and find comfort in their solidarity.

Being Black in Canada is an experience that may not be completely understood by those with a close proximity to whiteness — myself included. The artists portray a complex mix of circumstances and emotions, that I can only attempt to analyze and hopefully reflect on. At only 40 minutes, there is no excuse to miss out on this honest, raw art piece.

But if dance is not your style, then you can experience the folksy yet unconventional story of Bremen Town.

Writer-director Gregory Prest’s play is a retelling of classic folk tales in the style of a comedic tragedy. Featuring a kite festival, a dancing bear, and a dead monkey, it challenges audiences to face the painful experience of outliving your usefulness.

The story follows Frau Esel, a housekeeper who has dedicated her entire life to her work, after being fired from her position at Völksenhaus, an esteemed house in the village. She sets out to find the titular town, hoping her estranged son will welcome her with open arms, and meets a few strange characters along the way. 

The night I attended, the line to get into Bremen Town wrapped around Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, with multiple actors, directors, and other theatre-makers in attendance. Excitement for this show was unsurprising, considering the long list of credentials shared by Prest and the rest of the creative team. From Stratford to Shaw to Soulpepper, there are many accomplished voices involved in this production.

The cast’s talent does not disappoint. Nancy Palk shines as the cantankerous Frau Esel, while Oliver Dennis charismatically portrays her optimistic companion, Herr Hund. William Webster and Deborah Grover soon join as the well-intentioned siblings Herr Katz and Frau Henn, who are both quirky and older in age. 

Beautiful costumes and props colour the sullen world that Prest has written, while Tatjana Cornij’s accordion-playing narrator adds witty commentary throughout. Three actors (Simon Gagnon, Veronica Hortiguela, and Farhang Ghajar) play multiple smaller roles that round out the cast. The clever re-use of young actors makes the show feel ever-in-motion, echoing how time marches on in circles.

And time does march on. Although a 90 minute run time might seem brief, the show’s pacing pushes the story to feel much longer. Often, Prest over-emphasizes main ideas with repetitive scenes and sacrifices tone at the expense of an unnecessary joke. 

Additionally, it is difficult to take the show’s premise out of the wider context of its talented creative team. I wonder if it is possible to have a show with a highly recognizable cast and crew make an impactful point about the tragedy of being left behind as you age. Do these folks best represent who is left behind? Are these the best voices to portray who gets forgotten?

One can not deny that Bremen Town is expertly made. It is an endearing show with a charming cast and clever jokes. You are in good hands for an hour and a half. Despite my criticisms, I will not forget the message it attempts to convey, but I also won’t forget the point they may have left behind.

Next Stage Theatre Festival runs at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre until October 29. You can learn more about the festival here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

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Written By

Melissa is a multidisciplinary artist, young reviewer, box office aficionado, and Toronto-born Filipina-Latina woman. She studied at The University of Toronto and earned a degree in biochemistry and linguistics, but her love of theatre outweighed her need for a job in a stable industry. She wants to change the culture of Toronto theatre to be more inclusive and accessible. Her biggest goal is to become a producer of the arts, or to win Jeopardy (whichever comes first).