From June 11–20, Torontoist is exploring the best and most promising of Luminato’s many offerings.
Photo courtesy of Luminato.
To try to tackle Africa’s conflicted relationship with the West in three and half hours of theatre is more than ambitious, yet The Africa Trilogy demonstrates that the sharp execution of smart storytelling can, at the very least, begin to scratch at the issue’s rough surface. Produced by Volcano Theatre and co-commissioned by Luminato and Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the trio of one-act plays approaches topics of identity, politics, and perception from a set of varying perspectives, each offering a distinct glimpse into a tension-wrought dichotomy of “us” and “them.”
The trilogy’s opener, Shine Your Eye, traces the uneasy balance between principles and practicalities. Set in Nigeria, the play chronicles a young woman’s escape from a troubled past through a cyberworld of “hackers and crackers,” a transatlantic Skype romance, and an internet scamming job in the big city. Torn between a sense of duty to the legacy of her slain activist father and the desire to forge her own unburdened identity, she inhabits a world of ambiguity.
Shine Your Eye is the only play in the series to have been penned by an African writer and offers what may be the trilogy’s most boldly succinct description of naive Western interests in African welfare: “They want because they fear.” Under the direction of Volcano artistic director Ross Manson, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina’s lyrical script moves forward with gusto, and is forcefully acted by its ensemble cast—particularly Toronto actor Dienye Waboso, who is charmingly ebullient as the play’s central character.
German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God takes a markedly different approach. Carol (Maev Beaty) and Martin (Trey Lyford) are a middle-aged Canadian couple who have just returned home following six years of medical aid work in an unspecified African country. Reunited with their old friends Frank (Tony Nappo) and Liz (Jane Spidell)—who have opted for the baby-house-car path of least resistance—a booze-soaked dinner party becomes a stage for emotional outpourings and uneasy confessions. Central to the plot is Annie, the unseen African child Carol and Martin had taken in and left behind.
Under the direction of Liesl Tommy, Peggy Pickit moves easily between darkly comic satire and grave melodrama, its characters simultaneously obnoxious and wholly relatable. The uncertain degree to which Western relief work makes a lasting difference is never answered, but the play’s central focus on conflicts of interaction resonates long after the curtain call.
Written by Christina Anderson and directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo, the trilogy’s final piece, Glo, jumps between Africa and New York to join the divergent realms of the two plays that precede it. Lydia, played convincingly by Dorothy A. Atabong, is a writer whose memoir of her life in a Kenyan slum has brought her to New York, where she is slated to speak at a conference on corporate diversity. There, she is fetishized as a sage foreigner from the “developing world” while, back home, her brother Benjamin (Araya Mengesha) gets himself into trouble. Though Glo is sufficiently bolstered by creative direction and a solid cast, its fragmented and sometimes gaping script lacks the gripping punch found in its first two counterparts. Nevertheless, the shortcomings of one play are not grounds for dismissal of the trilogy as a whole, and The Africa Trilogy is undoubtedly among the highlights of this year’s Luminato festival.
The Africa Trilogy will be performed again on Friday June 18 at 7 p.m., on Saturday June 19 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., and on Sunday June 20 at 7 p.m.
Check out our Luminato guide or today’s Urban Planner for our Luminato recommendations, or follow our coverage here.