Panamania Reviews: The Postman and Gimme Shelter
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Panamania Reviews: The Postman and Gimme Shelter

The festival’s theatre fare includes a front porch–stomping tribute to Toronto’s first black letter carrier and an ancient perspective on the climate-change crisis.

Laurence Dean Ifill, centre, as Albert Jackson, with co star Maurice Dean Wint in The Postman, Appledore Productions' new promenade play for Panamania  Photo by Neiland Brissenden

Laurence Dean Ifill, centre, as Albert Jackson, with co-star Maurice Dean Wint in The Postman, Appledore Productions’ new promenade play for Panamania. Photo by Neiland Brissenden.

The Postman
The Annex (various locations)
Runs to July 26
4 Stars

Gimme Shelter
Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane)
Runs to July 25
$20 – $30

Forget Disney’s Newsies. It’s the posties who are delivering the musical good news right now, with a different true-life underdog story, set not in 19th-century New York but 19th-century Toronto.

The Postman, a tune-filled new play premiering as part of the Pan Am Games’s Panamania arts festival, celebrates the life and times of Albert Jackson, Toronto’s first black postman. And his inspiring tale is unfolding, appropriately enough, on porches in the neighbourhoods where he worked and lived.

Jackson (1856-1918) was the youngest member of an African-American family that fled slavery in the pre-Civil War United States and ended up settling in Toronto. Jackson grew up in the city and eventually landed the job of letter carrier in 1882. His biography sounds humble enough on the surface, but as told here (in a collectively written script by such notable playwrights as Lisa Codrington and Andrew Moodie) it’s a fraught and historically illuminating journey that takes in the perilous Underground Railroad and the racist underbelly of “Toronto the Good,” and includes a deus ex machina appearance by none other than Sir John A. Macdonald.

The play celebrates not just Albert, but also his courageous mother Ann Maria. After the death of her husband and the sale of her two eldest sons to another slave owner, she took her seven remaining children (including little Albert) on the long and dangerous trek from Delaware up to Ontario, via the Railroad—the legendary escaped-slave network.

Later, in Toronto, the adult Albert overcame more adversity in his efforts to serve as the city’s only black postman, facing the ignorance and prejudice of white co-workers who felt he should be pushing a broom, not delivering the mail. His hiring became a public controversy that rallied Toronto’s “coloured folks” and eventually involved Canada’s first prime minister.

It’s feel-good stuff, for sure, but paying homage to Jackson, one of Toronto’s unsung heroes, is a lovely antidote to the racial tensions the city has faced of late. It’s also a reminder of how strong Toronto’s black community was even as far back as the 1880s. And Jackson’s life certainly doesn’t go unsung in this show, which rings forth with blues and gospel music, performed by a talent-packed cast of 16 actors and musicians, with Laurence Dean Ifill beaming warmly behind a waxed moustache in the lead role of Albert.

David Ferry, the show’s director, producer, and driving force, has envisioned The Postman as a walking, open-air production that moves along streets in the Harbord Village and Palmerston neighbourhoods, using the porches of obliging residents as makeshift stages. (A few different routes and locales are used. Once you purchase a ticket, you’ll be informed of where your performance begins.) Unfortunately, the evening Torontoist took in the show it had been moved indoors, to the Annex Theatre, due to a thunderstorm warning. But even removed from its intended environment, it’s still a delight to behold.

Mirvish Productions, which is currently presenting Newsies, has an option on any future development of The Postman. Catch it now, so you can say you saw it before it became a commercial hit.

Actor playwright Ravi Jain re enacts episodes from The Mahabharata in his solo dance theatre piece Gimme Shelter  Photo by David Leclerc

Actor-playwright Ravi Jain re-enacts episodes from the Mahabharata in his solo dance-theatre piece Gimme Shelter. Photo by David Leclerc.

Ravi Jain’s new solo show Gimme Shelter, also a Panamania commission, is an exercise in empathy. Moved by the image of a young boy from the South Pacific’s low-lying Tuvalu islands, which are believed to be sinking due to global warming, Jain wants us to personally identify with the many whose homes and homelands are likewise being threatened. (His focus is explicitly on climate-change victims, but implicitly includes the thousands of war refugees and economic migrants as well.)

To stir our feelings, the actor-playwright adopts a technique used by his South Asian great-grandfather, a beloved storyteller: take a classic text and fashion it to speak to the issue of the moment. (It’s actually what Jain already did this past season with his rowdy revival of Accidental Death of an Anarchist, re-purposed to satirize the Toronto police.) His chosen text is the Mahabharata, the ancient Hindu epic about dynastic rivalries, from which he extracts a few episodes that involve both empathy and rescue.

The show is performed in the Young Centre’s Tank House studio space, reconfigured as an alley stage with the audience on either side. The stage is strewn with what looks like red gravel, suggesting a tropical island, while two large, transparent screens are suspended above, sliding and pivoting on a track.

The tales from the Mahabharata are told by Jain in voice-over, as he enacts them in a traditional mask and costume. The central section is a long, silent dance in which he weaves between the mobile screens, apparently acting out the exile of the epic’s hero, Arjuna, when he is banished to the forest for 12 years. The screens are illuminated at their edges and, glowing in the dark as they rapidly move, provide a diverting light show.

The production’s potent design is by Ken MacKenzie (set and costume), David Leclerc (projections), and C.J. Astronomo and Kimberly Purtell (lighting). Gurpreet Chana contributes seductive tabla music. But the Mahabharata excerpts, laden with wisdom though they are, prove too abstract to directly connect with Jain’s chosen subject. And he and director Jenny Koons allow the show to sputter out with an awkward final section involving audience participation.

Jain’s desire to make us more empathetic is noble—he should be performing this piece for those British tourists in Greece who, earlier this year, complained about unsightly migrants spoiling their holidays. However, in the photo that inspired Gimme Shelter, the boy from Tuvalu is holding up a handmade sign that reads: “To the rest of the world [,] please could you prepare a place for my country to stay.” He’s not asking for empathy, but for action. It’s one thing to feel for the plight of the displaced; it’s a lot harder, and much more necessary, to do something about it.