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Canadian playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard.Graham Isador/Supplied

From Sophocles’ tetralogies to August Wilson’s 10-play Century Cycle, great playwrights have always loved sinking their teeth into a meaty multipart project.

But Canadian playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard is making those guys’ ambitions seem like small potatoes with what she calls her 54ology – a grand artistic effort to write a play inspired by (but not necessarily set in) each country in Africa.

While it seemed like a pipe dream when she embarked on it in 2006, St. Bernard is now over a quarter of the way through the 54ology; along the way, three of the plays in her stylistically varied but subtly connected dramatic universe – Gas Girls (Zimbabwe); A Man a Fish (Burundi); and Sound of the Beast (Tunisia) – have garnered nominations for the Governor-General’s Award for English-language drama.

This week, 3 Fingers Back – a double-bill of thematically linked plays about captives and captors inspired by Angola and Guinea-Conakry – has its world premiere at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto and runs to March 24.

Meanwhile, Diggers, which draws on stories of gravediggers in Sierra Leone during the Ebola crisis, is on stage at Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg until March 10; the world premiere production was first seen in Montreal at Black Theatre Workshop earlier this winter.

J. Kelly Nestruck spoke over the phone to St. Bernard, who is also artistic director of New Harlem Productions and was a finalist for the Siminovitch Prize in Theatre, at her home in Hamilton.

What first gave you the idea to write a 54-play cycle – and did anyone try to stop you right off the bat?

The first three plays were developed in Obsidian Theatre’s playwrights unit in response to a prompt; Oh Sudanah, The First Stone and Gas Girls were all writing exercises to begin with. And then I found that it felt problematic to choose which parts of Africa were worth talking about; I didn’t know how to decide which ones weren’t. So I decided to do them all – or to attempt to look at every country. Nobody tried to stop me because it sounds like hyperbole when I say I’m going to write 54 plays about Africa.

Is your goal ultimately in the end to have written these 54 plays – or to have all of them produced?

I would be satisfied to have written them and to be able to offer them in a producible state. I’m about to hit 15 produced or published this year. Thirty-nine remain. I can do it.

Do you have a personal connection to or family history in any particular country in Africa?

No I don’t.

So, can I ask about your background?

My family is from Grenada in the West Indies. We just celebrated 50 years of independence this February. So: culturally Caribbean, culturally Grenadian, and, further back, my grandmother is from Trinidad.

When you started this project, I’d say the predominant voices in Black theatre in Canada were from writers and artists from different Caribbean Canadian communities. Now we’re seeing more voices from creators who are from the diasporas of specific African countries. How has that affected the journey of your project?

When I started writing, there were fewer Canadian plays by diasporic Africans – and so there was more of a need to assert those stories, more of a responsibility. And now that there are more creators in the field with that heritage and that cultural connection, there’s an opportunity for me with my ginormous platform to try to contribute to uplifting those creators as well.

My approach to taking stories inspired by continental Africa, I distinguish that from people such as [playwright and director] Tawiah M’Carthy and [Obsidian Theatre artistic director] Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu who are manifesting culturally specific stagings. The prevalence of other culturally specific artists in the field has taken up that space and it’s given me other directions that I can move it.

Is there some other impossibly large artistic project that serves as inspiration for 54ology?

Probably the closest I can think of is Suzan-Lori Parks 365 Days/365 Plays. Not remotely the same shape or number, but that large scope as an organizing principle for a very active mind. Otherwise, I’m just kind of trying to pull down the stars that are shooting past me. 54ology gives me a way to get there, to get to the end of each story and to focus on what it’s for and why it’s important enough for me to do.

Do you ever feel a bit trapped by what you’ve gotten yourself into? That it doesn’t allow you to do something outside of this rubric?

My reason for committing to such a large thing is because there are so many stories there. There is no story that couldn’t find an anchor, there was no impulse that couldn’t find an anchor – it’s a whole continent. There’s so much about it that I don’t know, I can’t imagine ever not being fascinated by this container. It’s also absolutely a self-guided education.

So if it’s been 15 over 18 years … I don’t know how old you are now, but are you gonna live to the end of this?

I am. I’m about 45 and of that 18 years, a good five of it was “what’s going on?” Now I’m on a roll. When I say 15 produced or published, there’s another five in my hand that you could take right now,

Well, I’m glad to hear you’re gonna get through all of 54 of them. I’m roughly your contemporary, so if I don’t get taken out …

Oh yeah, you’ll be around for the ending.

Are you gonna have a big party?

I have to, right?

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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