By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
You might flee violence. But you can never escape trauma, says Lady Vanessa Cardona. The damages linger, and infiltrate your life, your relationships, your identity. “Trauma lives in the body.”
Three Ladies, a new and intricate play by the multi-faceted Colombian poet/ theatre artist/ activist (opening Fringe Theatre’s “Off Season” Thursday), is all about the possibility of healing. For Cardona, who came to Canada at 12 as a refugee and is “passionate about sharing refugee stories,” the notion of a “journey” has multiple dimensions. None of them imply a final destination.
Three years ago, the award-winning poet (she’s the 2018 Canadian individual poetry slam champion) wrote a version of Three Ladies. “I wanted to start addressing the trauma I’d been neglecting for a long time,” says Cardona, who has a “theatre and development” degree from Concordia University. “It was getting in the way of my adult relationships in my adult life.…”
That first incarnation of the play was “about revealing to myself what that trauma was, and what it had done to my body, my sense of being. That version was more about the impact.”
The play that premieres at the Fringe’s Studio Theatre “does include the impact,” says Cardona, who teamed up with Indigenous actor/playwright Todd Houseman for the 2018 Fringe production Whiteface, now a film. “You do need some back story…. But it’s really about my continuing journey of healing, a journey that’s not finished and never will be finished.”
She’s been working on the play for six months with performers who aren’t “professional” actors or dancers, but “have the gift in them,” and naturally express themselves that way. “As people of colour that’s what we do,” says Cardona. “You ask some of them when they started dancing and they say ‘I’ve been dancing since the womb’.”
The play has an intricate structure, explains Cardona, the founder of the multi-disciplinary collective Remix The Ritual. She herself plays the Lady, one of the title three, who’s “the narrator who keeps the story together and is there in the flesh.” Lady Clown “lives in Lady’s memory,” the forgotten “inner child who’s been trying to get Lady’s attention.” Lady Shadow, the third, “had been birthed in trauma…. She’s all the voices Lady hears in her head.”
These are five in number — Grief, Enabler, Liar, Jealousy, Guilt — played by dancers. Each has “a wounded side and a healed side.” And they speak a poetic text in voice-over.
When Cardona and her family left Colombia they came first to Ottawa. So Edmonton counts as a “personal choice,” as she puts it. “People are very authentic here. It’s one of the last places you see a high amount of Indigenous influence.” In 2018 Fringe audiences saw Whiteface, her striking collaboration with Indigenous actor/playwright Todd Houseman (there’s now a film version). Where Do We Begin?, which premiered at Nextfest, a joint creation of Cardona and Joanna Simon, tracked parallel courses between the refugee and Indigenous experiences of trauma.
“Edmonton raises and supports emerging artists,” says Cardona. “The focus is on growth. It’s a very supportive vibe.” The playwright/director/artistic director Matthew MacKenzie of Punctuate! Theatre, for one, has been a generous mentor. “So encouraging, and it’s never about him.”
For a while she lived the Canadian theatre life of the auditioning actor. “A lot of the stories I could relate to. But there were always parts missing…. We don’t have enough ethnic or playwrights of colour.”
“I’m grateful now,” says Cardona, whose life as a spoken word poet was launched on a trip to Namibia. “Out of something disappointing came the want, the need, to create my own magic, my own art.”
“Telling the story of marginalized people in an authentic way” is all about reclaiming personal narratives, she says. “I can only tell my own story, the path I have chosen…. Other people have chosen other paths.”
Fringe Theatre Off-Season
Theatre: Remix The Ritual
Created by and starring: Lady Vanessa Cardona
Directed by: Nasra Adem
Where: Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Nov. 14 to 17
Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca