At the beginning of the second act of George Boyd's powerful examination of the politics of urban removal in 1960s Halifax, Nova Scotia, as it is applied to the local black community there, we learn that one of the reasons the city wants to relocate the people of Africville (which numbered some 400 residents at the time) is because the ground is not consecrated and therefore not appropriate for any of the sacraments of organized religion -- the location of a church, burial sites, etc. This comes as a revelation to those who call the small village their home. It comes as a stab in the heart to the character of Clarice Lyle (played by Shakura S'Aida) who has just lost her baby in the rat infested dwelling her husband Willem (Kevin Hanchard) refers to as "this run down old shack."
As is often the case in theatre, Consecrated Ground makes its way to the stage after much tilling in previous fora. A museum exhibition on Africville - which traces its history back to the mid 19th century - toured widely about a decade ago and poignantly wove the story into the larger social history of the period with artifacts, memorabilia and ephemera collected from black families still living in the area. In 1997, Joe Sealy won a Juno award for his exuberant jazz composition entitled "Africville Suite." Mr. Sealy's father was born in Africville.
This fictionalized re-telling centers on the critical days before the first removal of residents and focuses on the city's attempts to enforce their right of eminent domain. Shakura S'Aida as Clarice is asked to bear the heavy lifting as the play's dramatic fulcrum as she goes from the joy and elation of a newborn baby which she shares in the opening scene with her aunt Sarah (Lili Francks) and her husband Willem, to the child's death which occurs at the end of the first act. S'Aida rises to the challenge with a heartfelt performance imbued with honest emotion.
The playwright has burdened Francks with a difficult second scene when the young agent sent by the city of Halifax meets her at the local well, identified by a sign that reads the water must be boiled before using. Tom Clancy (Norman C. Owen), a boyish city functionary just twenty-four years old and still learning to smoke cigarettes, begins to ask questions and before you know it, Sarah is lecturing him on South Africa. This is a case of a playwright bursting to draw an audience's attention to the legitimate parallel between events happening in a similar vein in another part of the world (Sophiatown comes to mind). This kind of awkward exposition can seldom be employed successfully and fails here because we just don't believe that an older black woman would be so immediately forth coming with so much information. A dramatically more interesting scene would have invoked a cat and mouse game of "who are you and what do you want from me white boy?" kind of scenario.
Nigel Shawn Williams as Reverend Miner is a suitable rock upon which the church has been built and on whom the community can rely for support and leadership. He has immense talent as an actor, which enables him to carry off an awkward soliloquy in the second act that has him questioning his faith. Fortunately, it occurs in the church and is framed almost as a spoken prayer so we don't back away from him.
Abena Malika (as Groovey), plays upon her sex, youth and good looks as the ticket she intends to use as her passage out of the ghetto and Troy Adams ( Jimmy "Double Speak") struggles with a speech impediment as his own personal metaphor for surmounting the larger impediment of poverty and personal alienation.
When the first trucks arrived from the city to vacate the inhabitants of Africville, they were not traditional moving vans - they were garbage trucks. Furniture and belongings were thrown haphazard into the trucks and the removal was begun. The final funeral scene that ends the play has the Reverend Miner performing a service for Clarice's dead child. His final act is to officially consecrate the ground in which the coffin is being lowered - even as the city's bulldozers are preparing to remove it.
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