A convergence of paths en route to healing: Where do we Begin? at Nextfest

The mainstage theatre lineup at Nextfest 2018 includes four productions of strikingly diverse and unusual inspirations and theatrical styles. 12thnight.ca talked to the playwrights. Meet Lady Vanessa Cardona, Joanna Simon, and Roya Yazdanmehr, creators (and stars) of Where do we Begin?, a theatrical/ musical confluence of stories of displacement and unexpected solidarity. 

Joanna Simon and Lady Vanessa Cardona, Where do we Begin?. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

If there ever was a Nextfest production that embraced the multicultural cross-disciplinary spirit of Nextfest, it must be Where do we Begin? created by (and starring) Lady Vanessa Cardona and Joanna Simon.

In the show, the pair find unexpected below-the-surface parallels in their stories of displacement and their journeys toward healing and solidarity. 

Cardona, an award-winning performance poet (the Canadian individual slam champion of 2018), is a Colombian civil war refugee who left her home country at age nine. Simon, a Cree artist from the Samson Band, “a wandering spirit” who’s lived everywhere in Alberta from Peace River to Calgary, grew up in the child welfare system.

“My story,” Simon says, “is about strength and resilience…. I’m super-excited to do a show that give me a creative way and a safe place to express parts of my story.”

Their sound designer singer-songwriter Roya Yazdanmehr has intertwined cultural roots. Her Iranian father came to Canada as a religious refugee in the ‘80s; her mom is an Albertan Ukrainian. “I grew up hearing my father sing prayers in his native tongue,” she says.

Joanna Simon and Lady Vanessa Cardona. Photo supplied.

Cardona and Simon met at the Indigenous Centre at Edmonton’s Norquest College (where Simon is studying physical therapy). “We started hanging out,” says Cardona. “I got interested in sharing stories with Joanna … and a lot of our childhood stories, even though they look very different, resonated together.”

The result, she says, embraces “monologues, poetry, theme piece…. It’s a very poetic play.”

And there’s music, courtesy of contributions from Yazdanmehr, who explores “the cultural intersections,” she says. “It’s not traditional Persian singing, but those sounds bleed into my music.” The vocals “pull from  Eastern melodies”; the  instrumentation includes the mbira (a musical instrument from Zimbabwe) and the West African djembe (a drum) along with her voice.

Yazdanmehr “writes songs in many different styles,” as she says. Filtering through them are “the sounds of eastern world music contemporary pop, jazz. She and Cardona have worked together before — “mostly improvised, always different, created on the spot.”

The production is a collaboration across cultural divides, and there’s something quintessentially Nextfest about that. Says Cardona, “the script started two months ago. But we’ve been working on this for our whole lives….”

Where do we Begin? runs Friday, Sunday, June 9 and 10 at the Roxy on Gateway (8529 Gateway Blvd.). Check nextfest.ca for times and tickets.

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