Poetry has long had a major presence on stages at Canadian theatres; poets, less so. This may account for why Sound of the Beast, Donna-Michelle St. Bernard's new performance at Theatre Passe Muraille, is so unusual and disarming. A certain distance we're accustomed to at the theatre has disappeared. Here's a poet; now listen.
St. Bernard has written traditional plays with scenes and characters (two, Gas Girl and A Man A Fish, have been nominated for the Governor-General's Award for Drama), but Sound of the Beast is a different beast. It's a collection of spoken-word pieces, mini essays and raps. They don't cohere into a single clear story – but are connected in theme, a tremendously topical one.
You'll have guessed it already if you've realized the show's title borrows from the lyrics of Bronx rapper KRS-One's Sound of da Police, the famous 1993 anti-police-brutality single with the woop-woop! hook.
Early in the show, St. Bernard asks the audience, "Have you ever been slow-cruised?" This would be when a police car crawls by you on the street, its occupants clearly checking you out.
In this poem, St. Bernard effectively describes the feeling that suddenly creeps into whatever you're doing when that happens. You're suddenly giving a performance of yourself doing nothing suspicious for an audience of two people carrying guns.
That self-conscious street theatre is, of course, different depending on the "you" in question. St. Bernard – who describes herself as a Torontonian from Grenada by way of Bequia, St. Vincent – is largely focused on the troubled relationship between police and communities of colour across North America that has inspired the Black Lives Matter movement. As she rap-sings: "Shoot first, call for assistance/ Blackness as an act of resistance." (The overall sound design is by David Mesiha; some of the beats come from Germany's Blunted Beatz.)
According to St. Bernard, Sound of the Beast is the latest instalment of her project to write 54 plays, one inspired by each of the countries in Africa. She very briefly tells the story of Tunisian rapper Ala Yaacoubi, who goes by the stage name Weld El 15 and who was jailed for a song called Boulicia Kleb (Cops Are Dogs) and now lives in exile in France.
Mostly, however, her performance lives in Toronto, where there's no law against insulting the police – but free speech clashes with those who enforce the law in different ways, at protests or heavily surveilled hip-hop concerts or New Year's Eve parties at art galleries. What gestures, what words will get you – certain yous in particular – arrested, or worse, when a cop rolls up? St. Bernard performs all the possibilities in the safe space of a well-established theatre. (It wasn't always thus: Theatre Passe Muraille had its own clashes with the police early on.)
St. Bernard doesn't talk about any particular touchstone death involving police in the GTA – although the front cover of the program features pictures of Jermaine Carby, Sammy Yatim and of a sign seeking "Justice for Andrew Loku."
Sometimes, St. Bernard frames the segments in Sound of the Beast very clearly – as in recurring scenes where she gives what she calls reluctant advice to an imaginary son, for instance, how to curate his social media so that he won't be blamed if he dies at the hands of a policeman. "Quotes by Martin, not by Malcolm," she says – adding that photos of Snoop Dogg are okay, but only the ones of him with Martha Stewart.
At other points, it's unclear if St. Bernard's sharing her own experiences or if she is telling stories on behalf of others; how much she's in character. Each piece features wordplay or wisdom compelling in itself, but there's a now-that, now-this feel to the show overall. Part of the disjointedness is by design: St. Bernard gives up some space to an ASL poet named Tamyka Bullen, who appears in larger-than-life projections on the back wall. She wants to make it about more than herself.
The connection between poetry and theatre is strong – but there's usually more of a transformation involved.
Soulpepper has found regular success musicalizing the poetry of the likes of Dennis Lee and Edgar Lee Masters. Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit has done some of its greatest work theatricalizing the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton and Leonard Cohen.
Theatre Passe Muraille began its season with a visitation from a poet as well – Gwendolyn MacEwen in a revival of the late playwright Linda Griffiths's Alien Creature. It makes sense to end it with a visit from a live poet, a very alive one.
There are two directors listed here – Andy McKim and Jivesh Parasram – and I wished for a more singular vision to complement or contrast St. Bernard's writing and performance talents. Perhaps the times and the matter at hand calls for directness, though.
Sound of the Beast continues to May 7 (passemuraille.ca).