By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight
There has likely never been a more all-inclusive welcome to a piece of theatre than the one we get from Kit (Sheldon Elter), our “guide of sorts,” in the opening moments of All That Binds Us.
The hopeful and the hopeless, the thoughtful and the clueless, the newcomer and the refugee, the poor, the mad, the scared, the anxious, the newcomer, the refugee, the bodies of every length and width and colour … Kit really digs in.
The complacent, however, will find themselves directly challenged by this new Azimuth creation, currently running live (and live streamed) at the Westbury Theatre. The Pangloss-ian view of Canada as a self-styled haven of freedom, fairness, amicable diversity, racial equality, is up for re-assessment in this collaborative production, fashioned by five BIPOC creators, directed by Reneltta Arluk, and performed by a BIPOC cast of six.
In the course of the show, set against a design of pale, shimmering, draped translucence by Elise CM Jason (video design by Effy Adar), the characters bring their individual stories, present and past, to the stage, and present them. The voices are mic’d, and loud. And they have the ring of lived experience to them.
Maria (Nadien Chu) is a mixed-race Canadian — “mixed” as she emphasizes, not half Chinese or half anything, but “a whole of everything.” Shams (Makram Ayache), a Lebanese immigrant, is gay and Arab, and “sort of Muslim,” a combination that doesn’t lead to a tranquil life anywhere, including Canada. Mands (Lebogang Disele, who performs via video projection due to COVID travel restrictions) is from Botswana, and trapped between worlds, finding that blackness means something different in Canada than in her native country.
Setsun (Tai Amy Grauman) is an Albertan Cree on Treaty 6 land, wondering forcefully why, in a country where Indigenous people are the true originals, white people aren’t asked where they’re from. Kamar (Amena Shehab) is a Palestine Syrian refugee, finding that freedom is a relative notion when you’re housebound with kids in a snowy new country, longing for connection. And then there’s Kit (Elter), “the storyteller … your whimsical spirit guide,” as he says of a user-friendly Indigenous identity that plays well with white people. “I am whoever I need to be.”
It’s Canada Day. And the “fearless fivesome,” a group portrait of Canadian inclusivity, are off to a club to celebrate — and discuss and argue. Against that multi-hued fabric, their individual stories emerge, stories of dispossession, displacement, hopes and dreams partially satisfied and then deferred or destroyed. These happen mainly as presentational speeches, with occasional sparky exchanges.
Mands’ story of the black female experience, in all its violence (“locked out, beaten, silenced, refusing to be broken”), unrolls on screen in long lyrical poetry, with repeating choruses. “I hear you, I see you” and “I want to say Me Too.” For the benefit of her white ex-boyfriend, who refuses to be dislodged from her mind, Maria invokes shameful chapters in Canadian history, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese internment, the Komagata Maru incident. Her July 1 greeting: “Happy Humiliation Day.”
Shams rejoices in the Canadian freedom to embrace his gay sexuality, only to discover its dangers — and the subtler ways he’s marginalized as an immigrant. Kamar, a refugee who has more positive feelings about her new country, finds a Canadian friend, and discovers that Susan (Chu) doesn’t have a clue about the perils of fleeing war.
The Indigenous experience so eloquently set forth by Setsun means, as the bartender (Elter) finally reveals, that he has to “apply” to white Canada for official approval of his ancient rights — and his very identity, as a “status Indian.”
For each character, the Canadian passport, and indeed “Canadian-ness,” resonate in different ways. But if you’re looking for reassurances about the Canadian record in racial and ethnic inclusivity, you’re looking in the wrong place. The Canada Day palette of red and white stands for “blood and colonization,” says Maria, still stinging from her fractured relationship.
It was memorable to see a show challenging the Canadian sense of superiority on the night of the appalling first American presidential debate, with its validation by the incumbent of white supremacy. Up north across the border, it may not be a rallying cry but here we are: there’s diversity and then, at the top, there’s whiteness. In this provocative show the threads spool out. And then, white-out.
In the blinding flash of light that bleaches the stage of all colour at the end, it turns out that “all that binds us” is the supremacy of white.
All That Binds Us
Created by: Reneltta Arluk, Makram Ayache, Lebogang Disele, Jenna Rodgers, Amena Shehab
Directed by: Reneltta Arluk
Starring: Makram Ayache, Amena Shehab, Lebogang Disele, Nadien Chu, Sheldon Elter, Tai Amy Grumman
Where: in person at Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave. or livestreamed
Running: through Oct. 3
Tickets, COVID safety info, and streaming: fringetheatre.ca