- Title: acts of faith
- Written by: David Yee
- Director: Nina Lee Aquino
- Actors: Natasha Mumba
- Company: Factory Theatre
- Year: Runs to November 29, 2020
The monologue, the one-person play, the solo performance – whatever you what to call it – is an art form that most Canadian playwrights writing in English are well-versed in. The reason: There’s a lot of emphasis on new plays in this country but not enough money to premiere many big ones.
David Yee is an exception. In fact, the Toronto-based writer is the only prominent Canadian playwright I can think of who has never penned a produced script that requires fewer than four actors. His better-known plays – the 2015 Governor-General’s Award winner carried away on the crest of a wave is the best-known – need at least six to pull off.
So it took a pandemic to cut Yee’s writing down to size, and it’s forced him to pack his trademark punch into a single character for the first time. The results are, eventually, quite potent.
Yee wrote acts of faith, a one-person show being live-streamed from Factory Theatre’s rehearsal hall through Nov. 29, specifically for the actor Natasha Mumba, a former Shaw Festival company member who starred in the Dora-winning production of School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play last year.
Mumba finds herself back in Africa among mean girls at the start of Yee’s play as Faith, a young woman who grew up in a Catholic family in Kitwe, Zambia (which also happens to the actor’s hometown).
Situated in a small room with a single bed and a prominent crucifix, Faith begins the show – a broadcast from a religious sanctuary perhaps? – by telling viewers about the time she faked a miracle when she was 12 years old.
She put the fear of god in a bully named Julia who was spoiling a friend’s birthday party by, with the help of a little sleight of hand and an itchy plant called devil’s grass, making believe the big man upstairs was sending a message through her to smarten up and fly right.
This fraudulent prophesy only sets off a series of unfortunate events, however, for Faith, owing to her strong, suitably Catholic sense of guilt. When she tells the truth about what she did to her mother, it only erodes the trust between them – and confessing to a visiting English priest that Faith initially dubs Father Hot Stuff is an even bigger mistake, which takes her story into more troubling territory.
Faith eventually has to double down on her theatrical prophesying in painful fashion and, years down the line, heads on a dangerous mission to Canada and a religious retreat for young girls in Muskoka cottage country to tie up her tale’s loose ends.
Director Nina Lee Aquino, Factory Theatre’s artistic director and a longtime collaborator of Yee’s, has a few tricks up her sleeves in her staging of the live-streamed acts of faith so as not to make you feel like you’re in a 70-minute Zoom meeting. There’s a little bit of digital prestidigitation, too, to be found in Joanna Yu’s set and Michelle Ramsay’s lighting.
What’s sometimes missing is momentum.
Despite the frequent pauses in the narrative for jokes (of the “A Catholic priest, a Baptist minister and a Rabbi go camping in the woods ...” variety), a committed up-close performance from Mumba complete with real tears (now streaming on demand!), and the occasional refreshing change in camera angle, I did at times feel like I was listening to an actor recite from a coming-of-age novel rather than a dramatic monologue. (Specifically, in its exploration of the spinoff effects of childhood mischief and its interest in the line between magic and miracles, there’s something here that made me think of Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business.)
A little rewrite at the top that made clear where Faith is telling us her story from might be sufficient to raise the stakes.
Indeed, once I realized I was in a revenge play, my attention no longer wandered. Revenge, or the desire for revenge, is a theme that Yee, reincarnated Jacobean playwright that he is, has returned to a number of times over the course of his career, and the climax of acts of faith is a fine one, capturing his flair for fiery fantasy mixed with thoughtful paradox.
David Yee’s acts of faith streams for free at specific times until Nov. 29 on factorytheatre.com; advance registration is necessary. Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.