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'The First Stone' by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto

The Ensemble photo credit by Cylla von Tiedemann

Joe Szekeres

At times, a harrowing and haunting story that made me feel uncomfortable several times throughout. ‘The First Stone’ hits hard about what needs to be said, sometimes angrily, regarding prevalent social issues.

My first visit to Buddies In Bad Times Theatre since I began reviewing and what an initiation to a story of high-grade intensity and not backing down on what needs to be said.

The press release says ‘The First Stone’ by playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard focuses on a family’s struggle to reunite after the children are captured into an army. The text draws on interviews with Acholi families torn apart by child abductions and the decades-long civil conflict in Uganda.

St. Bernard strategically and daringly marries text, movement, and song to tell a universal story that tackles generational violence, forgiveness and what it really means to come home. It is a tale that continues to evolve since its initial presentation in 2018. I found there to be a lot of subtext underneath the script I wasn’t getting that other audience members around me were as I could hear them quietly saying “Yes’ or saw their heads nod in agreement.

I still have so much to learn.

According to the press release, the themes of justice, interdependence and reconciliation reverberate within a Canadian and global context of these same themes.

I sat in the front row, so I made a concerted effort to pay close attention which made me question how I looked at societal issues from a settler viewpoint. At times I felt ashamed, angry, hurt, and annoyed at what played out in front of me and what was stirring in my mind from what I was seeing onstage.

Is that the mark of good theatre when we are stirred to ask questions, listen, and hear what’s being said? I believe so. To agree or disagree is something that needs to be shared calmly and rationally, whether in a talkback after the performance or over coffee or drinks.

I do hope there is an opportunity for talkbacks at least twice during the run of ‘The First Stone’ as it begs to be discussed.

From my experience, since so much has changed in the theatre since 2020, I’ve seen many productions so far where the themes of reconciliation, forgiveness and the questions of cultural identity have been woven together for a specific effect. All important, mind you, as these are issues which need to be said.

The play opens with a stirring and rousing poetic monologue delivered by a mystifying Ancestor Tsholo Khalema sporting some eye-catching makeup effects. We then meet the Boy and Girl of the family (Daniel Jelani Ellis and Makambe K Simamba) who are impishly playfully and tease each other as we follow them around one day. We also meet their Mother (Dorothy A. Atabong) who loved to dance even in the midst of trouble.

The father is missing from this family. There are hints he may be away fighting in a war. The presence of the perplexing Grandfather (Michael-Lamont Lytle) leads us to believe he might be involved in the disappearance of children in the community. Gradually the carefree life of Boy and Girl will change throughout the course of the story as war enters their lives and will change not only them but others around them in their community.

Is there anything about ‘The First Stone’ which makes it different from these other stories that are as equally relevant?

Oh, yes there are some very important technical effects.

For one, it is Indrit Kasapi’s visceral choreographed movements that become visually striking and strongly underscore those elements of oppression that figure strongly throughout. Michelle Ramsay’s shadowed lighting effects beautifully underscore emotional moments.

Cameron Davis’s projection designs intrigued me. There are moments where particular lines said by the characters are projected behind the action. I started to write a few of them down because in their simplicity they said a great deal. Some lines resonated within me: ‘I am a mother. I’m strong because I have to be.’ And ‘You are warmth, shelter and food all at once’.

There’s a strong inherent sense of pride within playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s intense script. When I say pride, I mean pride in who you are as a person and individual and for what you stand for even in times of turmoil and strife. Yvette Nolan directs the production with a great deal of purposeful vision as every inch of the stage looks fully utilized. As a gelled ensemble, this 15-member cast works extremely well in those frozen tableaux moments and never upstage the central action down front.

So much occurs on an opening night for whatever reason. For individuals like myself who are still growing and learning regarding these important thematic issues I’ve previously mentioned, would it be possible to have a quick talkback so we could also have the opportunity to discuss briefly what we’ve just seen?

Running time: approximately 100 minutes with no intermission

‘The First Stone’ plays until October 16 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander Street, Toronto. For tickets, or call (416) 975-8555.

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre presents a New Harlem Productions and Great Canadian Theatre Company production

‘The First Stone’ by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard
Directed by Yvette Nolan

Choreography by Indrit Kasapi + Pulga Muchochoma

Lighting design by Michelle Ramsay

Sound design by Maddie Bautista

Set design by Jackie Chau

Projection design by Cameron Davis

Costume design by Jeff Chief

Featuring 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 Smit.

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