By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Chanzo (Backstage Theatre)
Guilt, grief, and responsibility, the enduring triple-crown of family dysfunction world-wide: that’s the emotional infrastructure of Chanzo. And since this new play from the Kenyan-Canadian playwright/ dramaturge Mūkonzi Mūsyoki, in a fluid mixture of Swahili and English, is set at a high-collision intersection of worlds and cultures, past and present, the potential for explosion is enhanced exponentially. And it increases with every secret revealed.
In the aftermath of his father’s death, the title protagonist (David Shingai Madawo), who’s been away at university in Canada, has come back to Kenya — with his Canadian girlfriend (Jasmine Hopfe). “I’m here — finally,” says the troubled young man to his late papa when he gets up the nerve to visit the mortuary.
Whoever said that absence makes the heart grow fonder was undoubtedly a foundling. Chanzo’s formidably fierce sister (Onika Henry) is unremittingly hostile, to a mysterious degree of intensity. ”I’m not going to waste my time on this!” she says dismissively taking a strip off her bro, and exiting abruptly. Family problems, she says on another occasion, “can’t be paused like in a movie.”
She’s particularly enraged by his behaviour at the funeral. Chanzo argues he was being himself when he announces his break with Christianity. She argues that he was setting up the family for public ridicule.
His girlfriend tries to fit in and make peace, in a conciliatory, ineffectual, might we say Canadian?, sort of way. “Is everything OK?” she keeps asking. Well, no, actually. She’s game, and her intentions are honourable, but she seems to have a knack for entering at exactly the wrong time when the sibling shouting matches are reaching peak intensity. Anyone for tea?
What do we owe our families? What do we owe our individual selves? How do we find our true selves in the universal, complex and negotiable questions of identity that Chanzo wonders about? The two cultures have dramatically different expectations. And in Jeong Ung Song’s production, the actors, all three, really dig into the multi-faceted struggle Mūsyoki sets forth. And even though the production lags from time to time and is inclusive — which may of course be the point since Chanzo’s problems may always elude resolution — the performances do have the feel of authenticity about them.
Chanzo is an intricately constructed web of concealments, partial truths, game-changers, secrets and partial revelations, and it has special relevance for us in a country built on the concept of multi-culturalism to know how universal the coming-of-age struggles of families really are. You’ll swear you’re learning Swahili.