My 2019 Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival experience started on a terrific note with the latest historical play presented by MAA & PAA Theatre.
This year’s show is called Balance Board, by Edmonton activist and writer Bashir Mohamed, and directed by John Mukonzi Mysyoki. The play is based on a 1914 incident in Calgary, where a black railroad worker had tickets to see a production of King Lear at the Sherman Grand Theatre. The theatre tried to change his orchestra-level seats to balcony seats, where it liked to seat black patrons due to complaints from white people who did not want to sit with black people.
Not many people have heard of the case because Alberta school curricula have lacked focus on the histories of people of colour in the province, and our experiences have not been well represented (or represented at all) in popular culture.
Mohamed has been diving into the provincial archives and sharing his fascinating findings through his Twitter account and on his blog. The Charles Daniel case was one of the stories he found. However, like many newspaper stories about regular people, there wasn’t much follow-up. Last year, MAA & PAA did a play based on a tantalizing, albeit very brief, news story about a fire in a brothel, but almost all the details had to be imagined. Balance Board takes a different approach. The protagonist is a young man whose mother was a Somali refugee sent to Edmonton to begin a new life. The son wants to know more about the history of black people in Alberta, but since his school was not equipped to teach the subject, he goes to the provincial archives.
Actor Shingai Madawo turns in an amazing performance as both the son and as Charles Daniel (two big scenes in the play are dramatizations of actual court transcripts). The other cast member, Onika Henry, plays the mother and several other black women, representing different African diaspora experiences, not just with her words, but with changes in accent. When the actors played white characters, they placed white masks atop their heads, a thoughtful theatrical decision that references the unthoughtful theatrical practice of blackface.
Kudos to director Musyoki for shaping this complex play into a whole, and to Sherry Alvaro, the set and sound designer. The production included several wardrobe changes; shifts in places and eras, indicated by changes in lighting and music; and paper — lots and lots of paper, which appeared from my front-row vantage point to be taken from or copied from phone books and newspapers. Until now, Charles Daniel’s story existed only on paper (and perhaps microfilm), but not in our collective consciousness or in our cultural imagination. Great job by this whole crew, plus MAA & PAA co-producers David Cheros and Karen Simonson.
Balance Board is in Venue 13, the Old Strathcona Public Library.