Stepping into Their Shoes: An Encounter with Immigrant Women

 

On the evening of April 21, 2018, at The Guild in Charlottetown, I met eight immigrant women who told their stories in front of a full house. The women were part of a teaching initiative founded in Toronto in 2011, and directed by novelist Katherine Govier, who taught writing workshops to help immigrant women improve their written and spoken English. In the process, the women wrote their stories—centered on shoes, because the project’s home is in a shoe museum and it was the one condition required so they could hold workshops on the museum premises for free. Thus, The Shoe Project was born.

 

The women shared how they arrived in Canada between 2003 and 2017 at different stages of life for various reasons, from love to the pursuit of a better life to seeking refuge from war and strife. Each woman’s story was different and yet the same, because each woman’s story spoke of the same struggle and trauma experienced when a life is uprooted and transplanted in an alien environment. The women were from different countries—Syria, Iran, China, South Korea, Colombia, Venezuela, Nigeria, and Tibet—and all were old enough to understand the change, the necessity to leave their old lives and start new ones in a new country. They were old enough to remember all the friends, family, memories, and possessions left behind. Several were successful professional women whose careers were abandoned because their new nation would not recognize their credentials and required complete re-education—something that would take too much time, money, and effort; something that these women did not have the luxury to choose because they had to obtain gainful employment almost as soon as they landed. Employment that often would have been considered demeaning and beneath their station in life in their home country. Despite the difficulty, pain, and depression, these women forged on, put on brave faces, and claimed Canada as their new home, whether in Halifax, Calgary, or Toronto. They created new memories and while they continue to struggle with pain, depression, and trauma, they have found humour, love, and community.

I was eager to attend this performance because I knew their stories would be my story, and I was not wrong. Each story touched a raw nerve in me because I, too, was an immigrant to Canada and still feel what Govier has called a lifelong process of adjustment. I was glad to see so many immigrants in the audience as well, because these were their stories too, and hearing these eight brave women speak was almost as if they were speaking for us. I am glad this project exists because the voices of immigrants need to be heard, especially the voices of immigrant women, who are often unable to express themselves, let alone tell their stories. I am glad there were so many people in the audience and that the performance is touring the country because Canadians need to hear these stories and acquire greater understanding and compassion for immigrants. In most cases, Canadians born in country and who have lived in Canada all their lives will never be able to truly understand or imagine the experience of being an immigrant, let alone a refugee. Stories generated by initiatives such as The Shoe Project are a powerful way to provide others with a glimpse into what immigrants go through just to fit in and adapt to their new country. Hopefully, this will open up the eyes of decision-makers, employers, and policy-makers who persist in antiquated policies and practices that instantly discriminate against immigrants. I was once told it normally takes about 10 years before an immigrant is fully assimilated into the (PEI) community. Not every immigrant can or will wait that long. It is time people step into the shoes of immigrants, even if only for an evening, because an evening can stretch into forever.

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The Lorax by Dr. Seuss: A Review

The Lorax by Dr. Seuss: A Review

By Cindy Lapeña

*Prepared for Canadian students

What happens when greed drives businesses with no concern for the environment? Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, has once again dealt with a sensitive and important topic in an immensely imaginative story. He is well known for stories like How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, among others; and like his other books, this one must be read not just because it is enjoyable, but because it delivers a powerful message we need to learn while we are still very young.

Originally published in 1971 by Random House Children’s Books, Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax was a proverbial warning to care for the environment at the risk of destroying nature. It also suggests that businesses need to assume corporate responsibility for the environment by not exploiting natural resources without replacing them.

The story begins with a young boy seeking the Once-ler on a dank midnight in August in a place that is dismal with polluted air and a wind that “smells slow-and-sour when it blows.” According to legend, the Once-ler is the only one who knows about the Lorax and how it was lifted away one day.

The Once-ler was a newcomer to the place, which used to be a paradise full of green grass and Truffula Trees that bore fruits on which Brown Bar-ba-loots fed. Swomee-Swans flew about singing beautiful songs among clean clouds and Humming-Fish filled the pond.

Discovering how soft, silky, and sweet-smelling the Truffula Tree tufts were, the Once-ler decided to build a small shop to knit Thneeds from the soft tuft. As soon as he finished knitting the Thneed, the Lorax, an unusual-looking creature, appeared, demanding to know what the Once-ler had created and what he intended to do with it. Explaining that he would sell it, the Once-ler immediately sold the Thneed to a passer-by. The Once-ler was happy to sell his ridiculous product so easily and proceeded to invite all his relatives to work for him. He created a large factory to produce more Thneeds. When he wasn’t harvesting quickly enough to satisfy the production, he invented a machine to chop down trees four times as fast.

As the trees disappeared, the Bar-ba-loots lost their food source and the Lorax sent them away to find another place where they would have food. The Once-ler ignored him and continued his production because he wanted to become richer from the sale of his product. He increased production and began exporting elsewhere. Meanwhile, the factory spewed more smoke into the air so the Swomee-Swans could not sing. As a result, the Lorax sent the Swomee-Swans on their way to find cleaner air. Besides polluting the air, the factory produced waste from chemicals and dyes that were used to color the Thneeds. This waste was disposed of in the pond and soon, the Humming-Fish had to go. Each time a problem arose, the Lorax appeared to appeal to the Once-ler, speaking for the trees and the animals, which could not speak for themselves. Wanting only to get even richer, the Once-ler continued until, at last, he cut down the last tree. With no more trees or animals to protect, the Lorax lifted himself through a hole in the clouds and disappeared forever.

Left with no more trees to supply his factory, the Once-ler’s relatives abandoned him and his factory shut down. The Once-ler locked himself up in his tower-like home and never went out or spoke with anyone else except the occasional person who was willing to pay a bit to listen to his story.

In the end, the Once-ler expressed his great regret after having so much time to think about his actions, concluding that the world needed someone who really cared for it to survive. He gave the young boy charge of the last Truffula Tree seed with the advice to plant it, take good care of it and propagate more trees so maybe, one day, the Lorax would return with all his friends and make the place beautiful again.

Even if this book was written in 1971, it is still relevant today because it reminds us that we need to take care of nature. The Lorax represents all those who speak for nature and advocate conservation, while the Once-ler represents big businesses that exploit the world’s natural resources with no regard for the future. The story tells us how short-sighted big businesses are when their bottom line is profit and how that can destroy resources, which, after all, are not infinite. The young boy represents everyone else, especially young people, who need to assume responsibility for nature because without our natural resources, we will have no resources at all and an earth that is not fit to live in. It is especially meaningful today because of global warming and the greenhouse effect. We all need to understand how important taking care of the environment is for human survival. After all, without a world, there will be no humans.

*****

Anne with an E and a Flourish

A review of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical opening night performance, June 30, 2016, at the Homburg Theatre, Confederation Centre of the Arts, Charlottetown

By Cindy Lapeña

It’s Anne with an E who’d rather be called Cordelia, if she could. Yes, Anne Shirley and the longest running signature PEI musical Anne of Green Gables: The Musical is back for the summer with a brand-new cast, brand new choreography, spruced-up sets, and brand new visual effects. Even the music has been spiced up and sounded brighter, livelier, with jazzy innuendos best revealed in the new teacher Ms. Stacey’s (Josée Boudreau) inspiring rendition of “Open the Window”. Certainly, the addition of technology—from can-phones to the newfangled wall-mounted telephone brightened up the gossip song “Did You Hear?” The use of a few more hand props enhanced the dance numbers as well.

What is not to like about the musical? This year’s musical arrangement directed by Bob Foster has the play sounding and feeling more Broadway-ish, matched by accomplished choreography by Robin Calvert. Even the ensemble seemed more exuberant and the cast displayed high levels of energy that poured out in everything they did on stage, from twirling umbrellas to cartwheels, hurdles, skipping rope, and step-dancing. The ensemble playing students were nimble, highly skilled, and just bubbling with smiles, projecting their energy throughout the Homburg Theatre.  Maybe it’s also because I was sitting so much closer to the stage than usual, but there’s no denying all that energy spilling off the stage and into the audience, not to mention pacing at a clip that made the scenes fly by and seem over too soon.

I remember a few years ago, I happily reported the updates made to the production with the addition of video backdrops and improvement of sets. I’m happy to report another update to the sets—my favourite being the intricate scroll-work design on the second floor of Green Gables and the opening scrim with a projected book and Marlane O’Brien’s grand entrance as Mrs. Lynde. (I’m not saying what she does with the book, but it’s really cool and you have to see it for yourself!) I’d become used to seeing Marlane as Marilla, seeing her play Mrs. Lynde is completely refreshing. Hank Stinson seemed just perfect for the role of a more playful, boyish but fragile Matthew Cuthbert. I must say I really liked Katie Kerr as Diana Barry, much more than I like her as Sophie in Mamma Mia! Her voice and tipsy giggly girlishness seem made just for the character of Diana Barry. This year’s gems are first-timer homegrown talents Aaron Hastelow as Gilbert Blythe and Jessica Gallant as Anne Shirley. Hands down, she is the best Anne I have seen, since I saw it for the very first time in 2007.  Kudos to director Wade Lynch for imbuing a new vitality into this 52-year-old musical and topping an already gargantuan reputation; artistic director Adam Brazier for breathing new life into the Centre and leading it in new, exciting directions; and the entire cast and crew for this exceptional production.

You all know I don’t normally rave about a performance, but I am raving over this one. Besides the performance itself, I must mention the inclusion of a song-and-cast list, something I have mentioned several times in the past and something I have wanted to see in the program. I hope it’s a practice the Centre will continue because I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to know the song titles and who perform them. It adds to the memorability of the music. There was just one little thing I was disappointed with. Lines of sight were not checked when the school concert scene was blocked. Because I had the misfortune of being in a seat in the far right section of the audience, the whole “Fathers of the Confederation” tableau was cut from view. I know for certain I’m not the only one who had to invoke an imagination akin to Anne’s to picture that tableau and I do hope they move that scene closer to centre right so every member of the audience can appreciate the full scene. With that exception, everything about the show, from the deliciously topped cupcakes with Anne’s picture on lollipop sticks to set the audience in a good mood before the show to the sober but tender reprises of “The Words” (Marilla) and “Wond’rin’” (Anne and Gilbert), has set the perfect tone for the long Canada Day weekend as well as the rest of the summer!

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*This review can also be seen on ONRPEI.ca

 

Only on PEI in Harbourfront’s Lights, Camera, Island!

A Review by Cindy Lapeña

What happens when big time movie stars from Toronto come to small town PEI to shoot a film? To find out, you really have to see Island author Karen Slater’s Lights, Camera, Island! The Harbourfront Players’ latest offering is a charming comedy that had just the right mix of Island humour and sentimentality. It’s a full-blooded Island production that can only be pulled off by an Island cast and crew. It’s great community theatre that no one will appreciate more than Islanders, as evidenced by the laughter and enjoyment elicited from a highly appreciative opening night audience. Harbourfront Theatre’s relatively new Executive Director Kieran Keller welcomed the audience back to what promises to be a wonderfully entertaining season and it was good to come back and be welcomed by Slater’s ribald slice of Island life.

What makes the script more delectable is how Slater adopted the classic plot of cross-dressing and mistaken identities, not unlike Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will. That, coupled with your friendly countryside folk and the small town gossip mill, became the grist for Lights, Camera, Island! While anyone will enjoy the classic humour, only islanders will immediately pick up on certain jokes such as the gasps and the real reason for the big surprise kitchen party. That said, more of the jokes would have had greater impact if there were much quicker pick-up between lines. Or is that an Island thing as well? One sign of experienced stage actors is how well they are able to ad lib when they forget lines or cues and there is no dead air between lines. Nonetheless, recovery was successful, the audience clearly overlooked those few moments, and a good night was still had by all.

Director Marlane O’Brien must have had as much fun as I hear the cast and crew did while rehearsing this play, which they started working on in workshops, until it finally shaped up into this rollicking piece. What gave the performance that great community theatre flavour is probably the fact that the cast was not comprised of professional actors, just a big group of friends having great fun together. It’s completely plausible some added humour came from the mixed identities that extended to a general confusion in almost interchangeable names of two brothers and brother-like cousin—who sometimes reminded me of the Three Stooges—that added to the merry mix-up that became all the more confusing until it was all sorted out in the end. It’s the kind of play I would have loved to be part of!

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Eight Signs Aladdin is a Comedy

A review of Aladdin: A Fairly Tall Tale

By Cindy Lapeña

There are certain definite signs that a play at the Confederation Centre for the Arts Homburg Theatre is not a going to be a serious play. Let me elaborate. For the majority of performances, the first person you see or hear is Monique Lafontaine announcing the entrance of PEI’s very important members of the audience (VIMA, for those who haven’t met them) and the token reprise of O, Canada!, followed by her announcement of the theatre rules in English then French, before the lights dim and the first characters enter.

The first sign that this is not a serious play: When a story claims to be a “fairly tall tale” it’s a dead giveaway for humour with a capital H. This is all reminiscent of Mark Twain and his classical humorous short stories, better known as his ‘tall tales’. But this is PEI and the farther away from center you go, the taller the tales.

The second sign: When the program announces at the top of the cover that “This Christmas, Aladdin gets an Island twist!” Unless they meant a new kind of McCain’s French fry twists, this can only be interpreted as the somewhat quirky twisty sense of humour you get from being an Islander, or living on the island long enough to be almost indistinguishable from the rest.

The third sign: Highly unusual program content, such as Gordon Cobb on Aladdinthe cover with a silly face; Graham Putnam playing a suspiciously-named character called “Widow Twanky”, never before heard of in the fairy tale world; another suspiciously-named character named “Baron Wasteland” played by Dennis Trainor who sounds just like Bawwy Kwipky (from The Big Bang Theory); a cross-over character, Sarah Macphee as the Town Crier from last year’s Cinderella: A Fairly Tall Tale.

The fourth sign: Adam Brazier wrote the script and Scott Christian, who was the musical director, is working on his fourth panto. For those unfamiliar with this term, the panto is short for ‘pantomime’ but really isn’t one; it’s the 18th century British take of the traditional commedia dell’arte, and instead of the traditional Italian characters, they turned fairy tales into comical musical plays for Christmas. Knowing what kind of play it is pretty much explains it all, which makes this our ‘Ah, I see,” moment. But it doesn’t end there.

The fifth sign: Instead of Monique Lafontaine, as I mentioned in the opening paragraph, Adam Brazier walks onto the stage apron before the play begins and, like a TV show cue-master coaches the audience to “boo” or say “we love you Widow Twanky” at the appearance of certain characters, you know it’s a play made for kids and the young at heart, and it’s not going to be serious. Just how much?

The sixth sign: The evil Jafar with Rejean Cournoyer’s larger-than-life presence and distinctive rich booming bass-baritone voice uses a classic mwah-ha-ha laugh and interacts with the audience.

The seventh sign: The explosive and rib-cracking opening number is all about Vic Row in Downtown Charlottetown and Aladdin played by the boyishly charming Gabriel Antonacci is actually a Cinderella-boy.

The eighth sign: People can’t stop laughing when Graham Putnam is revealed as the hilarious Widow Twanky who has at least 3 jokes for every nugget of well-concealed wisdom. The Widow Twanky is also our source of adult humour, which, hopefully, none of the little kids in the audience understood.

I am going to stop at eight signs because if I keep on, then there would be too many spoilers to this insanely inane comedy that had me laughing so hard tears actually came to my eyes. Unfortunately, another spoiler alert I can’t help revealing is that the music is original, funny, and on the verge of copyright infringement—but if you listen to the dialogue and lyrics closely enough, they already know that.

There was really just one major spoiler to this panto and that was the problem with the mikes. I know miking for a huge cast in a musical play is difficult, to say the least, but the mikes were often out when they should have been on and it was very distracting for the voices to suddenly blare on mid-sentence or mid-word. Thank goodness, the audience was laughing most of the time they would have drowned out the dialogue anyway. Really. I miss those days when actors did not have to depend on microphones to be heard and that you really had to learn how to project your voice without losing it after the first show.

That said, everyone needs to catch this performance before it’s over, because it will certainly bring you cheer and laughter for the Christmas season.

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Thoughts on The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I just realized it’s Friday. I really thought it was still Thursday, but everyone was wishing a happy weekend so I had to check my computer date and, of course, it is Friday. Again. I can’t imagine what happens to the days, where they go so fast, how little I seem to be getting done, and how perfect the weather is for just snuggling in bed with a good book! Speaking of good books, what good books have you read lately? You already know my preference tends to light, fast-paced reading, so adventures, mystery and detective/spy stories, fantasy, and science fiction. When I am in the mood, though, I will read history, a lot of historical fiction, biographies, and autobiographies. When I can get my hand on them, I will read prize-winning books, and I decided to do just that when I went to a literary trivia contest with a bunch of writer friends and we won first place (woohoo!), which gave us first choice of a varied selection of books donated by Indigo. I picked the Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. That was several months ago. I finally decided to read it the goldfinch coverand am about three-quarters of the way done. I’m not going to present a summary here—you’ll have to read it yourself to find out the story. What I am going to say, is that one thing that came to my mind when I finally put it down a couple of nights ago (because I always read at bedtime), was Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield. The parallelisms are definitely there: Both Theo Decker and David Copperfield launched themselves into the world at the death of the mother; both boys had to live in different places, not all of them welcoming; both had a little girl they adored; both are significantly affected and influenced by another young boy who is not necessarily the best influence in their lives. I can’t really say more because I’m still not too far past halfway through. Nonetheless, Theo’s journey takes him places the way David’s has, through New York and Las Vegas painted with as much careful and colourful detail by Tartt as Dickens did the England of his times. Tartt’s attention to detail and vivid descriptions, plus the care with which she develops her characters are certainly reason enough for the book to win the Pulitzer. And that’s just the language and writing style. One must appreciate the underlying themes and the way her plot unfolds, as well, but which I’m not going to delve into right now. I’m pretty certain the complex plot, struggling characters, and attention to detail Tartt has woven into this story are why NY Times book reviewer Michiko Kakutani has called The Goldfinch a Dickensian novel. I can’t wait till bedtime.

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Evangeline Revisited

 

A Review by Cindy Lapeña

When Evangeline premiered in 2013, a new world-class musical was born and PEI stage was THE place to be. It’s 2015 and the Charlottetown Festival has brought back Evangeline with a few changes, and I must admit that I quite liked what I saw.

Except for two major actors whose roles have been reprised and a couple of members of the ensemble, this year’s cast of Evangeline is totally new. Whereas, Josée Boudreau played understudy in 2013, she carried the role of Evangeline Bellefontaine marvelously with her powerful soprano and forceful character. Jay Davis, whom I first saw in Bittergirl, played an admirable Gabriel Lajeunesse opposite Boudreau’s Evangeline. His wonderful voice, at times gritty but always very masculine and powerful, dominated the ensemble. I’m hoping it was a matter of balancing the wireless microphones, but he literally drowned out Boudreau in at least one of their duets. At times, it felt as though the songs were not really composed for him. All the Broadway-style belting is overpowering, and I would have appreciated a great deal more sensitivity, texture, control, and subtlety in the interpretation of some of the songs besides full-volume delivery. Réjean Cournoyer as the invented character, Captain Hampson played the perfect villain as he did the first time around, just as Laurie Murdoch as Colonel Winslow revealed the conscience behind the whole idea of the Expulsion of Acadiens, reprising the role that humanized a reprehensible historical event.

The backdrops made use of video technology, as they did in the premier showing, but rather than using the bright paintings of Claude Picard, a generally darker atmosphere pervaded the new sets designed by Cory Sincennes. I loved most the water scenes, with the actual waves moving in the projected backdrop, which added to the feeling of realism. The images projected on the backdrop were more carefully chosen so that they blended much better with the scenes. There was greater use of the revolving stage, which enhanced the movement across space and time, and eliminated the more realistic sets used in the premier. The basic set of rough-hewn lumber beams crisscrossed over the movable wings, was repeated in the stylized boardwalk that became decks, ladders, shelters, ships and boats. I would have liked to see that same feeling of roughness and simplicity in the crucifix used in the final scene. I’m glad water scenes were kept, because those were some of my favourites, especially with Gabriel and Evangeline rowing through the swamps, although Boudreau’s boat was not moving too smoothly, which occasionally jarred the illusion. It was a tad distracting, as well, to see movement under the sets when characters who were not part of the scene remained partly hidden, something that can so easily be solved by perfect stillness to maintain the illusion that they are not even there. Another tiny technical issue: the notice of Expulsion was tacked to a beam, but thumbtacks were not invented until 1903. I would have expected the soldier who posted the notice to use a nail and hammer. I would also think that he would have done this less surreptitiously as it symbolized the beginning of the tragedy that was the Expulsion.

I did not care very much for more than one ensemble dance number to end with the same parallel arms raised uniformly stiff above their heads; I felt that was somewhat awkward and neither very aesthetically nor symbolically significant. I seem to remember a little more dancing in the premier as well.

There were moments in the gala performance when I felt that the cast had not completely gelled together, and that some of the actors were still feeling their roles and not quite their characters. As well, I missed the completely smooth transition from one scene to another throughout that I have come to expect from the Centre’s performances.

That said, I would watch Evangeline again and again and again, because, as a theatre person, I know that no two performances will be exactly the same, and the gala performance was but one show. It is still, and always will be, a powerful story with beautiful music and lyrics. This new version of Evangeline has so much going for it and I am sure that, when everything falls into place, the brilliance of writer and composer Ted Dykstra and the vision of director Bob Baker will shine through.

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This review is also available on onrpei.ca

The premier performance of Evangeline was also reviewed by this writer. Read the review here.

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