Stepping into Their Shoes: An Encounter with Immigrant Women

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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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Anne & Gilbert: Island Through and Through

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“You’re never safe from surprises till you’re dead” is what Rachel Lynde always reminds Marilla. It’s perfect advice for the first-timer to a performance of Anne & Gilbert The Musical, running at The Guild until October.

As I do every time, I entered The Guild with no expectations and a lot of questions in my head, all wondering how this play would connect with my experiences watching Anne of Green Gables The Musical. I have been to The Guild several times and from the moment I learned that Anne & Gilbert would be staged there, I was thinking that the small stage and narrow hall would constrict the performers and box in the performance too much. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the black box had been completely transformed. The whole orientation was shifted 90 degrees so that the performance space included the whole length of the theatre, as did the audience space, which was transformed by several risers providing every row of the audience with perfect sight lines. Already, I was pleased.

Soon enough, the play began with the lively opening number of Avonlea schoolgirls in a passionate rendition of “Mr. Blythe” led by Brieonna Locche as Josie Pye. This song establishes the fact that Gilbert Blythe is the most sought after bachelor in town and Josie is out to make sure he becomes hers despite his known love for Anne. Margot Sampson’s portrayal of Rachel Lynde is livelier, wackier, and more endearing than the same character in Anne of Green Gables The Musical, albeit somewhat sedate in her first number “Gilbert Loves Anne of Green Gables.” Carroll Godsman’s Marilla Cuthbert still bustles around but her role as Anne’s adoptive mother has become stronger and more assertive. Ironically, it is through a letter to Anne at College that she reveals a depth of love for a former beau, which begins Anne’s journey to accepting her feelings of love. PEI’s most beloved character Anne Shirley, portrayed beautifully by Ellen Denny, is only slightly more restrained as a young adult, but still passionate and dramatic. Ellen Denny’s sweet, clear soprano voice reveals itself little by little and is at its best in her solos, my favourite being “Someone Handed Me the Moon.” Her best friend, Diana Barry, is played wonderfully by Brittany Banks, and shares Anne’s trepidation for married life. Unlike Anne, however, Diana is more excited, as she already has a beau and eagerly plunges ahead into marriage, while Anne continues holding Gilbert at bay, denying that she has any feelings for him. Patrick Cook is the perfect Gilbert, somewhat cocky, but utterly devoted to Anne, and certainly the best-looking guy in town. With his voice and looks, he most certainly will find not only all of Avonlea’s schoolgirls, but all of Charlottetown’s, hankering after him.

In the same way she instantly befriends kindred spirits, Anne befriends the wealthy Philippa Gordon, played by Morgan Wagner, whose bubbly but ever-pragmatic personality dominates the stage so that the fiery red-head seems quite sedate by comparison.

The projected backdrops were amazing, the proximity to the audience making one feel part of the scene, especially at the end of Act I. The sets were completely manageable and the execution of scene changes was disciplined and efficient. The costumes were reminiscent of the times. The music original, varied, and covering every range of emotions felt by the characters. The lighting was spot-on although I wonder if the space restricted back lighting and side lighting so that larger-than-life shadows were thrown about on the floor and backdrop, sometimes in more than one direction. Because the stage was much wider than it was deep, certain scenes had characters at opposite ends beyond peripheral vision, which limited the view for the rows nearest the stage. Having to turn your head to one side then glance quickly to the other just to see if something significant was happening there was a bit of a stretch. The best thing, however, was the absence of mikes. Hearing natural stage voices is something I really miss, because so many productions take advantage of wireless mikes, which can be a problem with a big cast and a lot of movement. Overall, though, the technical aspects of the production enhanced every minute of the performance and helped to draw the audience deeper into the atmosphere of Anne & Gilbert’s Avonlea.

Indeed, the surprises were plentiful in this play and, I am happy to say, they were wonderful surprises! The thrill of courtship, the warmth of a close-knit community, and the cheer brought on by song and dance were conveyed over and over again throughout the play. Brittany Banks’s lively and masterful choreography enhanced every mood and the Young Company players and cast executed it precisely and enthusiastically.

Patrick O’Bryan, a gentleman from Chicago sitting a seat away from me at the performance aptly summarizes what everyone in the audience must have been thinking by the end of the first act: “I am very impressed with the professionalism. The dancing, the singing, the music—all excellent!” To add to that, I say Broadway move aside, Charlottetown is here!

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Evangeline: The World Premiere of a World-Class Musical

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                  I was in 5th grade when I first encountered the poem Evangeline by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was already one of my favourite poets, because of another popular poem he had written, “The Song of Hiawatha.” Back then, I thought nothing of the significance of the poem, living on the other side of the world where anything about the West was almost a fairy tale. When I learned that the poem had been turned into a musical play, I just knew I had to see it and, in the meantime, refreshed my memory by digging up an old copy of the poem. Ted Dykstra did not disappoint with his well-woven script and amazing songs and music that ranged from spine-tingling spiritual choruses and deeply moving duets for Evangeline and Gabriel, to lively and rousing chorus numbers that had the house tapping and bobbing their heads in accompaniment. Under the masterful direction of Anne Allan, Dykstra’s script was transformed into a powerful performance that deserves Dora Mavor Moore Awards across several categories.

 

The musical Evangeline closely follows the story of Longfellow’s poem with a few artistic liberties, mainly the addition of the antagonist Captain Hampson, played by Rejean Cournoyer, a re-ordering of Evangeline’s stay with the Quakers, and letting Baptiste Leblanc, played by David Cotton, accompany Evangeline on her search for Gabriel, rather than his father, Basil, played by Tim Koetting, who did not remarry either in the poem. The character of Albert Arsenault’s Rene Leblanc in the musical is a merging of the poem’s notary public and story-teller, and the town fiddler, Michael. Evangeline’s encounter with the Creoles in Atchafalaya was represented by the character of Claiborne, played by the marvelous voiced Marcus Nance.  Nonetheless, the changes created the perfect mix for the musical by enhancing the roles of the supporting characters in the poem.

 

The title role of Evangeline Bellefontaine was beautifully executed with passion and strength by Chilina Kennedy, while Adam Brazier as Gabriel Lajeunesse, complemented her with his character’s devotion and undying love for Evangeline. Sandy Winsby played Evangeline’s devoted father Benedict Bellefontaine, while Olivier Leblanc, played as a boy by Nathaniel Ing and as a young man by Louie Rossetti, is an invented character who plays a foil for Gabriel and does what Gabriel’s more reserved and restrained character cannot do. The full cast and crew have been assembled from all over Canada, with several well-known names from around PEI. The choreography was simple and appropriate, although one of the female dancers lost her stride and danced to a different beat in the opening scene. The audio was extremely well-balanced, except for a few times speaking or singing volumes rose suddenly because of character proximity, but the balance was quickly and masterfully restored.

 

The meticulous detail with which costumes and sets have been designed by Patrick Clark is highly commendable as was the execution of the remarkably flexible sets. One thing that makes this production still more astounding is Jamie Nesbitt’s cycloramic video backdrop, which executes a panoramic view that translates Longfellow’s descriptions of the landscape and events into graphic depictions that emphasize the milieu of this story of a woman’s undying love and her strength, courage and determination to overcome all odds to be reunited with her husband.

 

Without doubt, this brand new musical that depicts the resilient spirit of Canadians in general, and Acadians and women in particular, will be welcomed with much applause wherever it is performed in Canada and around the world.

 

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 *This review is also available on ONRPEI.ca

**Evangeline formally opened at the Confederation Centre of the Arts Homburg Theatre, Charlottetown, PE on July 6, 2013 as part of the Charlottetown Festival 2013.