By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Silvery trees grow downward from above in Whittyn Jason’s evocative design for Heaven, the first production of the Citadel’s (socially distanced) return-to-live “summer season” after a year of constantly changing restrictions.
Someone up there in the celestial realm, where the roots are, is getting an aerial view of the Black settlement in Amber Valley. That’s where this unusual pioneer love story, by Calgary playwright/ historian/ filmmaker Cheryl Foggo, is set: the Alberta hinterland that proved a refuge, a hard-scrabble heaven, to former slaves fleeing racial violence south of the border in the late 19th century. It’s a part of our collective history that’s even less known than the rest of our collective history, which is saying something.
A tiny, spartan one-room cabin sits surrounded by vast prairie space on the Citadel’s Shoctor stage. Thanks to Jeff Osterlin’s indispensable lighting effects. it’s surrounded by scorching prairie sun or howling prairie snowstorms. The first sound you hear in Patricia Darbasie’s production is a train: there’s only one way into Amber Valley in the 1920s, and one way out.
“We’ve been through a lot of teachers here,” says Ezra (Anthony Santiago), a widowed farmer who’s in charge of recruiting for the local school. Sharp-tongued Charlotte (Helen Belay), just arrived from Ontario and dressed like a city gal (costume design: Leona Brausen), surveys her bleak new surroundings with a look somewhere between skepticism and sinking-feeling comprehension. For Charlotte, there’s more of purgatory (in more ways than one) than heaven about Amber Valley.
With its texture of apparently casual details and reveals, Heaven gives us a fascinating little historical glimpse into an isolated all-Black rural community in the Alberta of a century ago. It’s 3,000 miles and a country in sensibility away from the prosperous St Catherine’s, Ont. that Charlotte has left to be Amber Valley’s teacher. Her motives are mysterious. But fear not, dark secrets in the end will out (or the theatre in general would just wither and die).
What makes Heaven unusual is that it puts a Black lens on all the familiar village motifs we know from pioneer ‘white theatre’ — the gossip, the rivalries, hostilities, the party-line telephone, the one-room school, the baseball team, country vs. city, the natural drift toward exclusion — with the added stakes that the inhabitants can’t be upped when it comes to survival skills. Their inheritance as refugees from racial atrocities is something that Charlotte doesn’t share. And her accusations that the people are too fearful are unfair, as Ezra points out, coming from someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to have the KKK pound at the door.
Heaven unfolds the way conventional rom-coms do, in snapshots of antagonism. Two characters from incompatible backgrounds who rub each other the wrong way have encounters that end up in arguments, or huffs, or stalemates. Gradually, ever so gradually they’re on a first-name basis, and their family histories gain traction and dimension. Ezra’s story of his father’s escape from a slave owner, especially, is a gripper.
Will these two ever be friends? More than friends? Have you ever seen a rom-com?
Like the more famous one with the pearly gates, this Heaven is built, rather carefully, on entrances, short scenes, and a succession of (very) regular exits from the stage. And that regularity of rhythm, in truth, can seem a little repetitive in the course of the play.
But the performances have considerable charm. Belay is a real sparkler as Charlotte — a mouthy “modern woman,” unafraid of confrontation, impatient, quick to get exasperated by convention, rueful when she oversteps. “If I’m not wanted I don’t want to be here,” she snaps at Ezra. “They look at me like I have two heads,” she complains to him about the Amber Valley folk.
He’s the more conciliatory character, laconic, quicker to back down … until he won’t. Santiago negotiates this slower, quieter escalation, and Ezra’s fragmentary outbursts of dry wit, with considerable skill. He’s the teacher, whether it’s how to patch a door, scare off a bear, or wheedle the locals into compliance. “You gotta win them over,” he advises. And she wins us over, too, in an evening that’s a Black romance, and in its own unforced way a history lesson.
As a side note, it feels like a treat to be back in the theatre, part of a real live audience, with real live people onstage. The audience maximum is 100 in the Citadel’s 681-seat Shoctor Theatre. Wearing masks is “encouraged” but “not required.”
Written by: Cheryl Foggo
Directed by: Patricia Darbasie
Starring: Helen Belay, Anthony Santiago
Running: through Aug. 15 (a digital version for streaming is available soon)
Tickets: Available at citadeltheatre.com or 780-425-1820.