top of page

'THREE SISTERS' by Inua Ellams. After Chekhov

A Co-production with Obsidian Theatre in association with Soulpepper


Geoffrey Coulter, Contributing Writer, Actor, Director, Adjudicator, Arts Educator

" A superb not to be missed re-imagining."

“The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming!” With the plethora of Russian theatre currently playing in Toronto, it looks like they’ve arrived. “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” is currently breaking box-office records at Crow’s Theatre while Mirvish’s production of “Uncle Vanya” closed a successful run at the CAA Theatre just weeks ago.

Now Soulpepper, in collaboration with Obisdian Theatre, presents a superb, not-to-be-missed reimagining of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” by Nigerian-born playwright Inua Ellams. He has masterfully taken part of Chekhov’s original plot and transformed the rest into a relevant, thought-provoking piece of social commentary about the delicate fabric of family and hardships.

Ellams has transported the action of the original from nineteenth century Russia to late 1960s Africa and the cataclysmic Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Biafran War, one of the bloodiest conflicts in that continent’s history. This fluid adaptation, a clear testament to the ravages of colonialism and disencumbered liberty, is thoughtfully directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. It’s also boasts and impeccably fine cast featuring some of the finest, most compelling acting and ensemble work this reviewer has seen in quite some time.

A year has passed since their father, a respected military commander, died but the three sisters are still grappling with his passing. Eldest Lolo (Akosua Amo-Adem), is a wise, hard-working teacher in the local school, Nne Chukwu (Virgilia Griffith), is married to the schoolmaster Onyinyechukwu (Tawiah M’Carthy), and youngest Udo (Makambe K. Simamba) – having just turned 20, is being courted by two soldiers, idealistic serviceman Nmeri Ora (Ngabo Nabea) and lovelorn Igwe (Amaka Umeh).

The sisters live with their lackadaisical Cambridge-educated brother, Dimgba (Tony Ofori) in a small village in Owerri, Nigeria, longing to return to the cosmopolitan city of their birth, Lagos. Their father built the house from scratch with the intent of immersing his family in the Igbo traditions, set apart from the “colonial cultural erosion” that he believed infested the capital. What the siblings don’t know is that the Biafran Civil War is about to erupt and change their lives, their relationships, and their country forever.

I strongly recommend a quick read of the program to get some much-needed historical context that serves as backdrop to this riveting drama. I wasn’t aware of the Biafran conflict and the resulting deaths of 30,000 Igbos people and the displacement of 300,000 more. You need this history going in to understand and appreciate the political dynamics and what’s driving the underlying conflicts – the unhappy, arranged marriage of Nne with Onyinyechukwu, the family’s uncle (Matthew G. Brown) who has turned to gambling and drink because, under British rule, he’s not allowed to practice as a doctor and housemaid Oyiridiya (JD Leslie), a northern refugee who witnessed her husband’s murder at the hands of the Hausa people and wants her revenge.

Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu expertly directs this tremendous production with verve and sensitivity. The play is long, well over three hours. But Otu keeps the dialogue and the actors moving smartly. Her vision to explore the narratives of tragedy, humour, social class, dreams, reality, inaction, and despair is fully realized. She makes good use of the small stage by playing scenes to the edges to accommodate the 12-member cast but doesn’t shy away from intimate moments centre stage.

Joanna Yu’s storybook set design is functional and practical, with fine African details such as the thatched straw roof of the home’s exterior and trees subtly flanking the property. Lighting designer Andre du Toit effortlessly evokes the African heat with a barrage of amber lights while providing darker hues and spotlights as the war marches to the very doorstep of the sisters’ lives. John Gzowski’s subtle and supportive soundscape of placid chirping crickets and festive radio broadcasts contrasts eerily with the sounds of rumbling storms, explosions and warplanes roaring above.

Kudos to the inspired fusion of spot-on costumes of the late 1960s with traditional African prints and headwear by designer Ming Wong. Her bright colours, bold prints, extreme hemlines, loose-fitting shirts, flared trousers, and low heels gave a definite “swinging sixties” vibe while honouring the rich textures of the African working class.

But it’s the extraordinarily talented cast that makes this play an event to remember. There isn’t a weak link. Characters are so well-defined that we know what makes everyone tick within minutes. Amo-Adem is thoroughly convincing as the wise, frustrated, and exhausted schoolteacher. Griffiths plays the married, bored middle sister with aplomb, while Simamba is the epitome of optimism and youthful exuberance. They enter and exit the stage with purpose and clarity.

More impressively, each one has a life-changing experience that transforms and informs who they become by the play’s end. Perhaps this is most evident in the stunning metamorphosis of Oladejo’s Abosede, who goes from an insecure outsider with a detestable fashion sense to a glamorous but shrewdly scheming head of the household. These actors take us on their own personal journey. That’s storytelling. That’s acting. Umeh adds some much-needed humour as the socially awkward soldier Igwe, while Brown, Stephens-Thompson, Leslie, Herbert, M’Carthy, Nabea and Ofori bring tangible life to their supporting roles.

Politics, greed, love, betrayal, envy, power, corruption, redemption, and the complexities of family. Chekhov knew 123 years ago the universality of these themes. They’ve been characters on the human stage forever. But add the irreversible and indelible effects of colonialism, racialization, and a country at war with itself, and you have in this production a reimagined classic that is perhaps more relevant today than it’s ever been.

Running time: approximately three hours and 20 minutes with one interval.

The production runs until March 24 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House, in the Distillery District. For tickets, visit or call 416-866-8666.

THREE SISTERS by Inua Ellams After Chekhov
A co-production with Obsidian Theatre.
Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu
Set Design: Joanna Yu
Costumes: Ming Wong
Lighting: Andre du Toit
Sound design and composition: John Gzowski
Vocal music coach and arrangement, additional composition: Adekunle Olorundare (Kunle)
Movement director: Esie Mensah

Performers: Akosua Amo-Adem, Virgilia Griffith, Daren A. Herbert, Sterling Jarvis, JD Leslie, Tawiah M’Carthy, Ngabo Nabea, Oyin Oladejo, Makambe K Simamba, Odena Stephens-Thompson, Amaka Umeh, Matthew G. Brown.

Abstract Building
Black on Transparent_edited.png
bottom of page