'Truth' by Kanika Ambrose. Based on 'The Gospel Truth' by Caroline Pignat. The World Premiere
Now onstage at Toronto's Young People's Theatre
Credit: Dahlia Katz. L-R: Jasmine Case and Wade Bogert-O'Brien
‘Truth’ sets the tone to begin Black History Month. Sabryn Rock directs with care and precision to ensure the play’s message becomes more than just a story of suffering and oppression.”
Set in 1858 on Whitehaven, a Virginian tobacco plantation in the Deep South of the United States, Kanika Ambrose places ‘Truth’ a few years before the American Civil War.
Whitehaven is owned by Master Duncan (Jeff Miller), who lives with his young, impressionable daughter, Tessa (Dominque LeBlanc). There are slaves on the plantation: handyman Will (Micah Woods), the older brother of the kitchen boy, Shad (Dante Jemmott). The cook/housekeeper, Bea (Chiamaka Glory), is busy cleaning breakfast before preparing for lunch.
At the top of the show the audience meets Phoebe (Jasmine Case), a young, mute Black girl who sits in the hollow of a tree with a notebook in her pocket. An older woman joins Phoebe. The two have an apparent connection, but we do not know what it is. We later find out this lady is Ruth (Chiamaka Glory), who plays an essential role in Phoebe’s life. Eventually, the family prepares for the arrival of a northern guest, ornithologist Dr. Bergman (Wade Bogert-O’Brien). Tessa becomes smitten with the gentleman and does whatever she has to do, sometimes with great comic fanfare, to marry Bergmann and escape the dreariness of plantation life.
YPT’s teaching guide for ‘Truth’ states the play chronicles the fierce strength and resilience of a community as it struggles to find freedom.
Visually and audibly, the creative team effectively takes the audience back to an era of tranquillity and serenity in the Deep South. It’s a time of hearing the birds sing, feeling the sun's warmth on the face, and just appreciating the wonders of God’s creation since citizens would have all been God-fearing Christians. Shannon Lea Doyle (Set & Costume Designer), Shawn Henry (Lighting Designer), and Thomas Ryder Payne (Sound Designer) have magically painted a colourful and splendid vision of a world long ago. Doyle’s costumes are beautiful re-creations right down to the rope-tied belted pants worn by Shad. Henry and Ryder Payne’s lighting and sound work succinctly to create an immersive experience that, throughout the entire play, acutely appeals to the senses.
A reminder that ‘Truth’ is sometimes uncomfortable to watch. There are moments of implied physical torture and violence. A few children sat around me on opening night, and I wondered if this story suited them.
YPT Artistic Director Herbie Barnes nicely explains why ‘Truth’ is an essential theatrical work for all young people to see: “…it is important to remind ourselves of our history: our victories and our defeats, the good and the ugly aspects of how we, as people, arrived at our present reality. Our young people tend to live in the ‘right now’. Thus, at times, a gentle reminder of who we are – and who we were – helps to ensure our future will be more promising.”
Parents and teachers, please take this message to heart before you bring children and students.
With skill and careful direction by Sabryn Rock, Kanika Ambrose’s compelling script moves beyond its implied violence. It reminds young people and all of us to listen to our informed voices with conviction and heart.
What a dynamo of a powerhouse ensemble cast. They are constantly in fluid motion to keep the story’s pacing engaging.
Jasmine Case’s Phoebe is reserved and quiet. There is the sense that the young girl is just like the wounded bird in the cage to which she tends. She’s hurt, bruised, and maimed, but there remains a life force within that will help in recovery. Although the character is mute, Case remains focused and always in the moment as Phoebe. She listens attentively, responds credibly, and takes in as much as possible. Case brings a sense of incredible strength and reserve. As I sat in the second row, I watched her performance closely and became intrigued by her facial expressions. Her eyes convey so much since Phoebe is mute—very strong work.
In a dual role, Chiamaka Glory provides those bits of humour to balance the implied violence of the time. Glory’s Bea is sassy and sarcastic when she speaks to Shad and Phoebe in the kitchen. She becomes a mother figure to the two of them. There remains a transcendental spiritual quality about Glory’s performance as Ruth in those moments she quietly shares with Phoebe in the woods.
As brothers Will and Shad, Micah Woods and Dante Jemmott establish solid and unique characteristics. They are consistently believable in their relationship, especially near the end when their bond is tested. A reminder that Woods’ first appearance as Will is tough to watch. (Spoiler alert: there is an implied action of his whipping by Master Duncan). Jemmott’s Shad does his best to try and avoid punishment by the owner and is successful when he is favourably looked upon by Duncan at one point. Shad’s growing affection for the young Phoebe is sweetly handled with compassion.
Jeff Miller’s Master Duncan is the primo prototype of the Southern plantation owner – full beard, impeccably dressed and always on edge, ready to blame whenever something goes awry on the plantation. Duncan’s relationship with petulant daughter Tessa is constantly at odds. She loves her father but doesn’t want to be near him because he appears eager to lash out. Like Glory’s Bea, Dominique LeBlanc terrifically provides necessary moments of humour in her childish petulance, most often in her flirting with Dr. Bergmann. The irony behind this façade is that Tessa is like her father. When things don’t go to plan as she wishes, Tessa lashes out horribly at Phoebe.
Wade Bogert-O’Brien’s Dr. Bergman is a mystery initially, and Bogert-O’Brien aptly reflects this quality. There is a long-time connection between him and Master Duncan. The reason Bergman selects to visit the family, to study the birds around the home, doesn’t seem to add up at first. Bogert-O’Brien adds to the humour of the moment as Tessa flirts with him. But where the dramatic intrigue grabs hold is the doctor’s growing interest in Phoebe. This interest inspires Tessa to lash out, a sign of jealousy.
Phoebe is frightened by the doctor’s advances, but it soon becomes clear why Bergman behaves as he does. When this fact becomes apparent, it makes for a riveting moment of good theatre. I watched with wonder and amazement how these artists told a story with an assured conviction of (what Herbie Barnes said earlier): “[the reminder] of our victories and our defeats, the good and the ugly aspects of how we, as people, arrived at our present reality.”
Final Comments: An enthusiastic and heartfelt production, ‘Truth’ is performed with bold confidence and intended purpose.
Running time: approximately 75 minutes with no interval/intermission.
The production runs until February 23 on the Ada Slaight Stage at Toronto’s Young People’s Theatre, 165 Front Street East, Toronto. Call the Box Office at (41) 862-2222 or visit youngpeoplestheatre.org for tickets.
RECOMMENDED FOR AGES 10+ | GRADES 5+
TRUTH by Kanika Ambrose. The World Premiere
Based on the novel ‘The Gospel Truth’ by Caroline Pignat.
Director: Sabryn Rock
Set & Costume Designer: Shannon Lea Doyle
Lighting Designer: Shawn Henry
Sound Designer: Thomas Ryder Payne
Historical Movement Consultant: Fairy J
Performers: Wade Bogert-O’Brien, Jasmine Case, Chiamaka Glory, Dante Jemmott, Dominique LeBlanc, Jeff Miller, Micah Woods.