who knew grannie: a dub aria

Written and Directed by ahdri zhina mandiela
Factory Theatre
Playing through April 4th

Reviewed by Robin Breon

The thing to remember about the long and distinguished career of the writer/director, documentary filmmaker, choreographer and theatre producer,  ahdri zhina mandiela is that before she was any of these, mandiela started out as a poet. And in particular the cultural form and style of a poet from Jamaican origin who early on sensed that the language of poetry can release the creative spirit like the soothing massage of a warm island sea bath. In this sense, mandiela is in league with a distinguished group of fellow travelers past and present including Phillis Wheatley, Maya Angelou, bell hooks and the choreopoems of Ntozake Shange; augmented, informed and expanded more recently by the youth movements encompassing poetry slam, hip-hop and dub (of which zhina mandiela was an early proponent in Toronto).


Although mandiela's approach to text encompasses the idea of character development, it does not necessarily rely on it exclusively to drive the story line of who knew grannie: a dub aria which centers on the title character of grannie (here played with poignant aplomb by Ordena).


The four cousins who surround their grannie in life and death come from a variety of backgrounds: tyetye (Joseph Pierre) is incarcerated and because of his circumstances is probably given the most opportunity to act out the torment and anguish of his situation; vilma (Andrea Scott) is a political functionary always being interrupted by her cell phone and clearly involved in the important affairs of the state; Marcel Stewart portraying kris, is a practicing chef who is grateful for the help and support grannie showed him throughout his youth as he now proceeds to replicate her culinary skills and achieve success in adulthood; likklebit (Miranda Edwards) has immigrated to Canada and although now cut off by distance from the warm embrace of her grannie, joins with her cousins to remember the special times of their childhood days together.


The performance style of this aria is lively and emotional while at the same time being straightforward and expository. The underlying percussion accompaniment by Amina Alfred  keeps the tempo of the piece without ever retarding or accelerating it artificially.


Poets are not all that respected in our society. As the comedian Fran Lebowitz once observed, "you don't go to that many cocktail parties with well-heeled investors and say 'oh, that one over there made his money in poetry'." Mandiela's writing is strong and compelling throughout and I would suspect that this quality, so profoundly embedded in the text, retains its power whether experienced as bedside reading in the privacy of one's own room or through the interpretation of actors on the stage. That's a tribute to her skill as a writer and not a bad thing at all for the cause of poets everywhere.

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