Lights go down and from the back of the Centaur a voice breaks out in a tremendous song. Sheets fall from the sky to the stage in a gripping flutter. The cast comes down the aisles to the stage singing and dancing. Upon arrival, the dance evolves into a mythic, stylized pantomime that ends with an EMT walking away with an all too ephemeral baby, leaving its mother, Rainey (Lucinda Davis) distraught. Dramatic, moving, energetic, and performed with crisp perfection, The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God does not rest from this stunning opening to its final curtain call.
Djanet Sears’ play is one of the most anticipated productions at the Centaur and it exceeds all expectations. The story is intricate, but the 22-person cast weaves the engrossing story before our eyes with deft movements and visual flair. Rainey’s life seems to be one of constant change. She’s given up her medical practice for grad school after losing her child, she’s divorcing her charismatic pastor husband (Quincy Amorer), and her aging ex-judge father is suffering from a fatal health condition. Unable to accept loss with grace, Rainey fights to keep her child symbolically alive by refusing to visit her grave and she endeavors to get her father into a medical trial against his wishes. As focused as the show is on Rainey, it is no less about her father “the judge” (Walter Borden) who has an on-going pet project with his four closest friends that entails Oceans Eleven levels of planning. Did I also mention that there’s a missing family heirloom from the War of 1812 and a fight to stop the whitened-up renaming of Negro Creek Road to something more politically correct?
As Rainey’s story unfolds, the play relies upon its chorus of ancestors to heighten every scene as well as scene-changing interludes with a capella Afro-folk music and dance (composed by Alejandra Nunez, music direction Andrew Craig, and choregoraphed Vivine Scarlett). The choreography of their movements is done with such care, whether they are performing a variation of African dance, serving as the congregation at a sermon, or transforming into Negro creek itself with their arms as flowing water. The costumes are the best I’ve seen (costumer Astrid Janson will not be forgotten) and even the lighting is masterful, with perfectly aimed beams to spotlight Rainey in the crowd of parishioners.
The script is warm and comedic, with plenty of tender moments and brilliant zingers. Lucinda Davis has long been a local favourite with ability to capture complicated emotional states. Her humanity comes through when she speaks and even when her character sits in a chair, head tilted and feet tucked under — she conveys so much emotional depth. Not to fret, Amorer matches her with strength and dignity as he plays the public and private face of the pastor/ex-husband-to-be Michael. Borden, too, is strong as her sassy, intelligent father, and his colleagues are bursting with personality.
I generally dislike when playwrights add didactic explanations of history and discuss racism in the dialogue of an otherwise a story-driven show. It always seems ill-fit and glaring, like extra digits stitched onto a hand. While Adventures has many moments where Sears shows the current problems of racism and adds facts about black history in an integrated manner, at times she seems to put words into her characters’ mouths that are intended to bring an ignorant audience up to speed rather than advance the plot. However, the strength of the show makes these forgivable, and of course, current events remind us of our responsibility to acknowledging historic and present injustices. If Sears wants to teach Canada’s rarely shared black history and remind her audience that racism happens to us here and now, more power to her.
The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God is stunning. The story is deeply satisfying, the characters lovable, the acting moving, the chorus delightful, and every detail given lavish care. Miss this one at your peril.
The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God plays at the Centaur Theatre until October 18. Tickets and schedule HERE. $31-54.