New Harlem Productions, with support from Theatre Passe Muraille
Written by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. Directed by Clare Preuss. At Theatre Passe Muraille until December 3.
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard is one fearless playwright.
She has created a project called 54ology, in which she will write one play for every country in Africa. Cake is her most recent effort, inspired by stories from Niger.
The title refers to an open-pit yellowcake uranium mine in the town of Arlit. The pollution it creates endangers the health of the people who live there and is destroying the environment. All this thanks to the greedy individuals who export the uranium, both legally and illegally.
St. Bernard details this background in her program note. The play never mentions it; it’s a subtle allegory. Instead, the story focuses on Oba (Jamie Robinson), who is a proud, fastidiously dressed man trying to pass as a successful businessman. In reality he barely makes ends meet, so runs a secretive business selling dark, gold-wrapped packages. Oba pimps out Feme (Yolanda Bonnell), who used to be a servant for his late father, to Araf (Ash Knight), a shady businessman. It’s a complex world, where everyone is complicit.
This is St. Bernard’s story of Niger: selling its riches to the highest bidder, raping its resources, and poisoning its future. It’s a bold way of illustrating what’s happening in the country, but without the program note for context, one would be hard-pressed to realize the intention.
Director Claire Preuss and her team, especially set designer Jackie Chau, have fashioned a world in which the gold packages (symbolic of uranium) are ever-present. Large gold packages hang from the flies. Oba’s rich leather chair sits centre stage, surrounded by his large expensive books, which he is selling off to get some extra money. Occasionally, a sound effect suggesting loud digging machinery ripping the land apart to get at the uranium plays in the background, which speaks to how the country is being plundered. And in one of the production’s most moving moments, we hear Nina Simone singing Jacques Brel’s mournful “Ne me quitte pas,” which could be a lament not only for people but for a country.
My concern is that the play is so focused on the frantic man trying to keep up appearances that the larger context—the allegory of what is happening in Niger—is lost. Without that context, Cake seems like a tenuous story of a businessman who’s failing. I’m sure St. Bernard means for her play to be more meaningful than that.
For tickets or more information, click here.
Want to know more about the cast, and what their favourite kind of cake is? We’ve got the scoop.