Awake is a show I felt I needed to see. I wrote my undergraduate thesis play as a somewhat delayed reaction to the spate of gun violence in Toronto that some dubbed “the summer of the gun,” that ended in the Boxing Day shooting at the Eaton’s Centre. Though proud of my work, I realize that my background of privilege and personal experiences mark me as an outsider to the world that I was partially writing about; it’s no wonder that I found it easier to get inside the head of an accomplished, fairly well-off student and her community than I did young male gang members and the community that shaped their lives. Therefore, I was really excited to see a show that did what I, in my shyness, had failed to do – take a real incident, this time the gang-related shooting of two young black men, the latter at the former’s funeral, and actually interview the community to create portraits of preachers, mothers, cops, and the young men and women who are trying to get out of poverty and despair one way or another.
Awake took place in the Walmer Baptist Church, a place I had never entered, but its beauty added much to the almost religious experience that was occurring between the impassioned speeches, emotional impact and the beautifully-sung music, particularly the gospel. Though the environment was somewhat stifling in the summer heat, conscientiously-placed palm fans both provided some respite and added to the atmosphere. The clearly real coffin on stage gave the proceedings an appropriately solemn air. The entire space is used well; Fringe organizers clearly knew what they were doing when they gave this site-specific venue a chance.
Because it is based on interviews, Awake sounds honest and raw; not to the point where it isn’t still lyric, but it certainly bears the mark of authenticity. It doesn’t hurt that it is extremely well-cast. All the actors are very strong, to the point where I’m legitimately sad that I haven’t seen more of their work, but they also all project the right physical and emotional centres to fill their characters. The cop (David Shelley) has the build and walk of a cop, the mother (Quancetia Hamilton) an astounding amount of emotional gravitas mixed with a warm laugh; the young mother (Beryl Bain) an impressive mix of vulnerability, self-assurance, and self-awareness; a drug dealer (Peyson Rock) convincingly and simultaneously tough, funny, and sympathetic. Though the cast is strong, there’s an occasional sense of the amateur, a feeling of “let’s put on a show!” - but I’m not sure that hurts the production; it may help it.
The show is also impressive in that writer/directors Lauran Mullin and Chris Tolley intercut the interviews with a very specific narrative in mind. The plot moves forward as we move backward and forward in time; there is little fat, although when there are seams and bits of confusion - like a scene set in a club where the explanatory words were lost in the cavernous church and the resulting performance didn’t make sense - it’s jarring. Words were often an issue and were actually exacerbated by the cast being miked. Though projection is difficult in a large space, at least there would be no distortion; because the show’s strength is its immediacy, reality, and connection with the audience, having that layer of distance is distracting and counterproductive.
Music is a source of real beauty in the piece, and serves as an effective framing device. The only music that doesn’t quite work is that of rapper U.R.V.: unfortunately, due to the space, many of the words didn’t carry. Even if they had, the artist seemed piloted in, like a cameo in a rap video that seemed entirely engineered to promote her own career, as she was name-dropped more than once to an audience somewhat confused by her presence. The cast worked so well together, and were such an organic unit, that the only reason to have a two-scene “outsider” would have been to have the character actually be, deliberately, an outsider. The outsider in this show is the police officer, and even he is painted sensitively and allowed meaningful interaction with the rest of the cast, so it seemed strange. Even the cast members who are in the show as dancers still have well-defined roles within scenes.
I appreciated how the show fought against stereotype, and fought against picking a villain, whether it be the authority figure or the gangs. Everyone is given a fair chance to tell their story, and to tell it while being treated with respect. It would be easy to blame someone, when there are a host of contributing factors, none of which are easy to solve, and the show is not afraid to get complex, though answers are in short supply. There’s an overarching air of sadness and resignation to the show, but also one of hope, aided by the glorious harmony of hymns- how many Fringe shows have an organist? I hope Awake’s funeral has a second life elsewhere.