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3 FINGERS BACK: 'Give It Up' and 'The Smell of Horses' by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard

Now onstage at Tarragon Theatre's Extraspace. A co-presentation by Tarragon Theatre and lemonTreecreations

Credit: Jae Yang. L-R: Megan Legesse and Uche Ama

Joe Szekeres

“Cleverly written. Boldly performed with unabashed emotions Surprising plot twists kept me focused right to the startling conclusion.’

Playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard has taken on the formidable artistic task of writing a play inspired by (but not necessarily set in) the 54 African countries. She calls this collection: 54ology. Two from this canon: ‘Give It Up’ and ‘The Smell of Horses’, recently opened at Tarragon Theatre’s Extraspace. These two one-act world premiere plays are thematically linked about captors and captives inspired by Angola and Guinea-Conakry. Those who bear witness to the resulting atrocities are also given prominence.

The plots are heady stuff to take in and not always pleasant to watch or to hear. There were moments when the audience laughed where I didn’t find the humour and I was a tad unsettled why some did. Nevertheless, I’ve always respected Tarragon and LemonTree’s slates. They are not afraid to confront contemporary social issues head-on.

We have entered the military coup of war overseas. Often, it’s not a pretty sight to behold how people treat others. Thankfully, any horrific violence mentioned occurs off-stage. Surprising plot twists kept me riveted to the staggering conclusion at the end of the production.

Yol (Uche Ama) and Ada (Megan Legesse) are imprisoned captives in ‘Give It Up.’ They strategize to survive the horrific interrogation brought on by their unseen captor. The solider Saad (Tsholo Khalema) appears periodically at the cell door and drags Yol away to assault her offstage. Ada is left in the cell sometimes listening to the horrible sounds. What is the cost of freedom these two women will have to pay?

After the interval/intermission, we again meet Saad (Khalema) in “The Smell of Horses’. Only this time, he has become a captive in the hierarchical military order of the base. His superior is Beech (Indrit Kasapi), a strapping weasel of a man who sometimes bullies Saad. Christopher Bautista plays Adam (stress on the second syllable and short ‘a’ sound), Saad and Beech’s brute of a superior Officer. There are moments when Adam plays head games with Beech. Other times, Adam gives Beech some horrible chores, who then gives the task to Saad (latrine cleaning is one).

César El Hayeck’s set design amply fills the stage and draws immediate attention. Far stage left is the solitary, lone cell where the action of ‘Give It Up’ takes place. Sliding doors open to reveal the cramped quarters. Stage right, on secure risers, is a military office where ‘The Smell of Horses’ takes place. Many military prop items are found on the walls. Two rotating elongated wooden platforms in the center of the room create fascinating staged moments. Periodically, Beech slams the platform to create a startling sound effect. Next to the office becomes the imaginary bunkbed where Saad and Beech sleep.

Along with Janice Jo Lee’s solid sound design and composition, Michelle Ramsay’s shadowy lighting design in the office and the jail cell becomes a stark reminder of the horrors of war. Des’ree Gray’s costume designs effectively enhance who each of these characters is. The soldiers’ costumes drew my attention immediately to them on their first entrance. The costumes on Ama and Legesse are torn and filthy to show they have been horrible victims of war and their circumstances.

Co-directors Yvette Nolan and Cole Alvis do not shy away from the atrocities of war in St. Bernard’s astute script. Nolan and Alvis confront it head on. For example, there is a moment involving Indrit Kasapi in the second act, which is handled maturely while at the same time horrifying when it becomes apparent what is happening. Nolan and Alvis should feel no need to apologize for presenting such a realistic element of war. That makes ‘3 Fingers Back’ compelling: the desire to understand what’s occurring even when plot information comes at us quickly, and it’s easy to get lost.

Performances remain intense and robust thanks to Nolan and Alvis’ insightful and intelligent direction. What remains paramount is the binary juxtaposition of seeing how war affects and brings two stories together into one world. I’m trying not to give away any plot twists; however, when a major one was revealed near the end, I heard some silent gasps from people behind me in recognition. I’ll be honest and say I did as well.

Uche Ama and Megan Legesse keenly capture the agony and fear of prisoner captives in ‘Give It Up.’ They intently listen and genuinely respond with subdued, raw emotions. The look of dread in Ama’s eyes when Khalema’s Saad drags her off remains palpable. Legesse naturally responds as Ada to the deafening silence of the cell when alone. That same look of dread and fright in her eyes, wondering if she would be next, continuously hovers in the air. The conclusion of ‘Give It Up’ reminds us of the tenacity of the human spirit; however, as stated in the playwright’s programme note, the play is rife with deceptive binaries, here/there only being one. That reality is clear at the end of ‘The Smell of Horses.’

What also remains strong is the deceptive binary of friend and foe in both plays. The periodic appearance of Saad in ‘Give It Up’ remains a puzzlement. Can these women become fast friends logically in a world they know where Saad could obliterate them on account of their beliefs? I can’t even imagine the horror Yol endures at Saad’s hands. However, in the end, he does something extraordinary and surprising for Ada, making my heart leap and wonder if this is true. But I was still puzzled.

When ‘The Smell of Horses’ concludes, it all makes sense. I don’t want to spoil any surprises for future audiences, so the only thing I will say is to pay close attention to the plot action in both stories, especially how Saad is connected in both.

Christopher Bautista becomes a towering, forceful presence. His Adam is merciless. Like Bautista, Indrit Kasapi delivers a grounded performance as Beech. His muscular physique makes him perhaps one to be suspicious of at first. Still, as the plot of ‘Horses’ continues, that initial wariness of Beech becomes one more of compassion when his back story circumstances are revealed.

Tsholo Khalema is one of the reasons to see ‘3 Fingers Back’. His performance remains intensely credible as an individual. His Saad may initially seem like a monster; he most certainly is for what he does to Ada in ‘Give It Up.’ I’m not excusing his behaviour. When we learn about Saad’s backstory in ‘The Smell of Horses,’ there is a possible and plausible reason why Saad has behaved as he does.

And Another Thought: Occasionally, I might experience trepidation about world premieres. Yes, reading pre-show articles is beneficial; however, will they set a base for what will play out in front, as that is what counts?
With this serious topic of war, I found helpful some of the background information Tarragon provides, which gives context to the production. It would be a good idea to preview it first before attending.

Running time: approximately two hours and thirty minutes with one intermission.

‘3 Fingers Back’ runs until March 24 at Tarragon Theatre in the Extraspace, 30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto. For tickets: visit or call the Box Office (416) 531-1827.

3 FINGERS BACK BY Donna-Michelle St. Bernard
A Tarragon Theatre & lemonTree creations co-production

Cole Alvis and Yvette Nolan - Co-Directors
Aria Evans - Associate Director
César El Hayeck - Set Designer
Des’ree Gray - Costume Designer
Michelle Ramsay - Lighting Designer
Janice Jo Lee - Composer & Sound Designer
Katie Fitz-Gerald - Stage Manager
Kayleigh Mundy - Apprentice Stage Manager

Performers: Uche Ama, Christopher Bautista, Indrit Kasapi, Tsholo Khalema, Megan Legesse

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