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theatre review

In The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God, the characters are so genial and good-natured, struggling to deal with grief, failing bodies or failing faith.

When Abendigo gazes out over Negro Creek, you see it, too. You hear the water running, smell the nearby woods, and feel the sun's yellow rays beating down on your face. And when the old man speaks about death, you feel as at peace with the circle of life as he does.

At 72, Walter Borden has truly grown into the role of Abendigo in Djanet Sears's landmark comedy-drama The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God. Since the play's first reading in 2001, the veteran Nova Scotian actor has played Abendigo – a retired judge in rural Ontario who organizes a museum heist.

But now that Borden is actually in his seventies, he is more steeped in the character than ever – and gives a performance so sensitive, so sensory, he tricks your body into feeling what he does. It's wise and warm, leavened by a sense of mischief and physical fragility.

Adventures (for we have a limited word count), the play that launched Toronto's black theatre company Obsidian Theatre in 2002 and later ran for five months thanks to Mirvish Productions, is getting a major revival in Montreal right now at the Centaur Theatre.

Indeed, Sears' production – she directs again as she did for the premiere – is being described as the biggest in the venerable anglophone theatre company's history. The cast of 22 is the largest ever seen on the theatre's main stage. (A co-production with Montreal's Black Theatre Workshop and the National Arts Centre, Adventure embarks for Ottawa in late October.)

Set in a 200-year-old black community in rural Ontario, Adventures is a feel-good play about faith and coming to terms with death. At its centre is not Abendigo, but his daughter Rainey (Lucinda Davis) – a doctor who lost her five-year-old daughter to meningitis three years earlier. Since, she's given up her practice, taken to popping aspirin and eating cigarette ashes, and is on the verge of finalizing a divorce with her husband, a country preacher named Michael (Quincy Armorer).

In this new production based on the original, however, Abendigo and his Lotsa Soap gang provide the more engaging theatrics. They are a group of five black senior citizens – played with the utmost charm by Borden, plus Barbara Barnes-Hopkins, Lili Francks, Rudy Webb and legendary blues and gospel singer Jackie Richardson – dedicated to the Liberation of Thoroughly Seditious Artifacts Symbolizing the Oppression of African People.

Dressed in trench coats and sunglasses when they go on missions, they have been radicalized in their dotage by the local council's decision to rename Negro Creek Road – a name that has been deemed politically incorrect, but honours a part of the black community's history. This land was their ancestors' reward for fighting in the Coloured Corps in the War of 1812.

In response, Lotsa Soap embarks on a mission to free lawn jockeys, little black gnomes, and other stereotypical ornaments from the surrounding area – all the while hidden in plain sight as a cleaning company. While the play's satirical attacks on remnants of racism might feel gentle in the age of Black Lives Matter activism, Sears' underlying conceit feels ahead of its time in a way – the play's questions surrounding appropriation and reappropriation of racial imagery and language are thoroughly mainstream today, as Twitter explodes daily over who used what word in what context. (Even the title of Sears' play title is a liberation of language, borrowed as it is from a short story by Bernard Shaw.)

Less resonant in this Montreal/Ottawa production is the exploration of Rainey's grief – in part due to Lucinda Davis's quiet, understated, almost casual portrayal of the character. Her grief is smaller-than-life, an interesting choice – but without her teetering on the edge, the play lacks urgency. Likewise, while Quincy Armorer as Michael is stirring in his sermons – and a very funny straight man to the Lotsa Soap crew – he's as of yet missing chemistry with Davis's Rainey. The tragedy of their divorce is missing.

The larger problem with Sears's play is that all its characters are so genial and good-natured that there is little immediate tension. They struggle with grief, failing bodies or failing faith, and racism that stays off the stage – but not really with each other.

This may prevent Adventures from being a great drama – but Sears's larger production concept remains a stirring one. The bulk of the cast plays a chorus who embody the character's ancestors and also, at times, the land surrounding Negro Creek. They perform a cappella music composed by Sears and Alejandra Nunez and movement choreographed by Vivine Scarlett throughout – almost transforming the play into a musical. Indeed, on opening night, there was so much singing and moving about between the written scenes that the play dragged on past 11 o'clock. Surely, as the run continues, Negro Creek will flow more smoothly.