The First Stone Powerfully Starts it All at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

Makambe K. Simamba and Dorothy A. Atabong in Buddies in Bad Times Theatre‘s The First Stone. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

The Toronto Theatre Review: Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s The First Stone

By Ross

On a large canvas, centered around a thatched roof circle, a company of actors delivers a communal song and dance of unity and collectivity, inviting us into their circle of warmth, power, and humanity. It’s a strongly formulated beginning, filled to the brim with ambition and meaning, structured around an idea of history and society. It’s all stated strongly before the crew splinter off to form chalk poetry with strong visuals of circles and symbols representing all that is dear to this village. These provocative and emotional first images of The First Stone fill the wide open stage of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre with energy, planting the familial struggle firmly in the earth and soul of this small village town somewhere in Uganda. Approaching first, on the great fractured divide, is the omnipresent Ancestor, played with organic force by Tsholo Khalema (Vancouver Playhouse’s The Drowsy Chaperone), who pulls us into their communal hands, guiding us towards this big themed new play by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard (Cake; Sound of the Beast), with a verbalized regret of throwing the titular first stone. Spinning a question forward that we can’t quite understand yet.

I can’t say that I was completely clear about what he was referring to, nor what this first act of violence was or what it represented or began, but the emotional meaning comes naturally over time, as playwright St. Bernard paints out the play’s ideals, both big and small, first focusing its gaze down inward on a small village community. It is there was we first are given an edge into the way of life that is being disrupted by a decades-long war that pulls fathers away from families, and where young innocent children are being abducted and forcibly trained to be brutal soldiers in a war that they can’t possibly understand.

It’s a harrowing journey, but we are assisted along the path by the titles and scenarios that are projected on the back wall, thanks to the projection design by Cameron Davis (Studio 180’s Oslo). Davis’s projections pinpoint our thoughts by showing pieces of the dialogue puzzle in order to highlight significant themes and ideas. It works for the most part, but sometimes the formula distracts us from the emotional truth at the center. But when it works, it leads us to the play’s inner fire and simultaneously opens up the intellectual canvas to a grander more epic scale. It’s not just inside this small bubble, but through this unique lens, the play helps explore the global themes of war, justice, interdependence, the use of innocent children as forced warriors, and the difficult road to thoughtful reconciliation that must follow within these torn-apart communities once their children return.

Forgiveness is at the heart of The First Stone; forgiveness for their crimes and their restructuring, and as directed by Yvette Nolan (Gwaandak Theatre’s Map Of The Land, Map Of The Stars), the tense global and more distinct internal themes reverberate from within. They are galvanized by grand movements and gestures that fundamentally impact our sense of dread and connection, even when, unfortunately, the background movements of the large cast sometimes are unneeded and distracting. Stillness might have been a better choice for our focus. But the play’s heart and focus live and breathe in the earlier day-to-day drudgery of an unnamed family living without a father figure in this small village in Uganda with war marching towards them.

The mother, played with a solid connection to the earth she farms by Dorothy Atabong (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale“), tries her best to hold the chalk-circled home together through historical movement, tradition, care, and worry. She has to tend to an infant that is wrapped close up to her body, as the seeds are planted in the land that surrounds them. The two more grown children, who bicker and fight in the loving way most siblings do, find solace in her visual embrace, and a sense of community within the town. The ‘Girl’, played solidly by Makambe K. Simamba (Sage Theatre’s Bea), and the ‘Boy’, played dutifully but sometimes overly exaggerated in style by daniel jelani ellis (Tarragon’s The Circle), live out their existence with curiosity and energy, gathering water together from the wells while stepping over a crack that never really seems to have a deeper meaning (other than one terrifically harrowing baby moment later in the play). The ‘Boy’ tags along, exuding the immature posturing of the “man of the house” now that father is away at war. ellis overwhelms the dialogue and the posturing while never really expanding outward from where he began. The ‘Boy’ says he’s there to watch over and protect his younger sister, but his ambivalence to her work gives away his secret flirtatious true agenda; to see a local girl named Uma, played dynamically by Nawa Nicole Simon (Tarragon/TFF’s The Mating Game) that he dotes upon. “Uma is strong,” we are told, but the journey that awaits Simon’s Uma is a devastating one, much like every young person on that stage, but for the time being, their flirtations lay a great foundation for what is to come.

Ucha Ama in Buddies in Bad Times Theatre‘s The First Stone. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Yet the air isn’t idyllic for very long, obviously, even if the youthful antics give an inaccurate casual edge to a story that is dynamically shifting under their feet. Their mother and her sister, Auntie, played beautifully by Uche Ame (Obsidian’s 21 Black Futures), see the rumbles that surround them. The two are very concerned about the young children who are systematically disappearing from their village, and look at the ‘Boy’ and the ‘Girl’ with increasing anxiety. They peer at their father, Granddad, portrayed awkwardly and unconvincingly by Michael-Lamont Lytle (Obsidian/Canadian Stage’s Dixon Road), with suspicion as they believe he might be the one responsible for the disappearances. Yet the two never find the courage to confront their Granddad in any significant way. Perhaps it’s because of cultural norms and gender/status inequality, but for that matter, we are left to make up our own minds. Yet their worry and fear exist in the fiber of their very being and are palpable in both Atabong and Ame’s engaging portrayal of the two sisters. They don’t quite seem to be born from the same earth, but their connection registers, alongside the mistrust and fear that revolve around Lytile’s Granddad. The violence within him that we are told is there never really vibrates out from Lytile’s performance, and if there is one flaw that sets The First Stone off balance, this is it.

When both the ‘Boy’ and then the ‘Girl’ are abducted and brutally forced to become savage warriors for a cause that never seems clear by Granddad, the play’s energy noticeably shifts towards the violence that symbolically escalates as the production as a whole ignites with a harrowing discomfort that sits solidly in our gut. Simamba and Ellis both elicit the youthful energy of siblings without a care in the world, but when we watch the restructured brother and sister swing their branch-like machetes in the background, as Granddad tortures the others into obedience, we can sense that these kids are already forever changed, and particularly in the stunning performance of Simamba, the violence is now embedded in their very fabric. To untangle it from their bodies and in the way their communities now look at them, knowing the violence they enacted as soldiers, this is going to be a hard act of reconciliation and a hard road’s journey to get to a place of ultimate acceptance and a return into the folds of the community.

On a stage designed with integrity by Jackie Chau (Factory’s Wildfire), with vibrant costumes by Des’ree Gray (Theatre Passe Muraille’s Designing the Revolution), simple lighting by Michelle Ramsay (New Harlem’s The Hours that Remain), and a solid sound design by Maddie Bautista (Stratford’s I Am William), The First Stone unpacks one family’s effort to reunite after being torn apart. It focuses on the struggle before, during, and after the two young children are captured by their Granddad and forced most horrifically and violently into an army. The piece dutifully unpacks the trauma, delving into the harrowing exploitation of children who are abducted and turned maliciously into soldiers, and expands the visceral feelings of both the village’s sense of tradition and harmony. The play speaks volumes in whispers and movement across that great divide even when the overall use of the large cast is at points somewhat messy and distracting. But thanks to the divine choreography of Indrit Kasapi (lemonTree creations’ MSM[men seeking men]) with the assistance of associate choreographer Pulga Muchochoma (Theatre Passe Muraille’s Cake), the play’s themes hit true and uncomfortably hard.

Together the choreographers utilize the cast’s communal body as the physical formulations of that training as well as the historical connections to one another through dance and movement. When the cast unites in that movement, the play, and its imagery fly forward and it hits hard, marrying text with movement and song to tell a story that looks at and beyond the trauma of generational violence, and into a historical racial reckoning. The play paints well the inner horizons with specifics, particularly with this family, but as we look inward, finding our way through the historical violence of our own nation and its horrific treatment of the Indigenous, the clues and parallels struggle a bit harder to pose the most intriguing of questions, specifically around what happens after the children leave the child army and return to their village, and how does that reflect on the treatment of the Indigenous children pulled from their own families and forced into the brutal and deadly world of the Residential School system.

The First Stone, drawing on several intense interviews with Acholi families whose children were abducted during the civil conflict in Uganda, does find its quick and quiet footing. The scope of the story is large, but in this play, part of 54ology, a larger project of plays written by St. Bernard and inspired by each of the African countries, this epic and powerful exploration succeeds in giving us an experience that echoes out wide and strong. “Were they ever mine?” their mother asks, as our hearts collectively break. “Only to care for,” Auntie replies, “they will be killers now.” The question that remains is will their village pull them back into their embrace, and forgive the world for what has been brought down on them. Reconciliation is the hard road that follows.

Bad Times Theatre‘s The First Stone.
written by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard
directed by Yvette Nolan
photo of Daniel Jelani Ellis and Makambe K. Simamba by Dylan Mitro
styling by Cat Calica, hair and makeup by Robert Weir
graphic design by Awake Studio

This New Harlem Productions and Great Canadian Theatre Company production of The First Stone had its world premiere in downtown Toronto at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander) featuring the following cast members: Uche Ama, Dorothy Atabong, Courage Bacchus Taija Shonée Chung, Tavaree Daniel-Simms, daniel jelani ellis, Tsholo Khalema, Michael-Lamont Lytle, Megan Legesse, Gloria Mampuya, Willow Martin, Kendelle Parks, Makambe K Simamba, Nawa Nicole Simon, and Paul Smith. The First Stone began performances on October 6, and was extended to October 23, before relocating to Ottawa for an April presentation. This ambitious new project has been supported through the NAC’s National Creation Fund.

Established in 1979, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre is Toronto’s leading destination for artistically rigorous, alternative theatre and a world leader in developing queer voices and stories for the stage. Over the course of its history, it has evolved into the largest facility-based queer theatre company in the world and has made an unparalleled contribution to the recognition and acceptance of queer lives in Canada.

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