AWAKE logo-SMDocumentary-style theatre creation often has a tendency of being too dry, too filmic or too wordy for the stage which requires extended use of body and voice – and, these days, other mediums – to keep audience members engaged.  This is not the case with Awake, a multidisciplinary production by Expect Theatre as part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival.  Music, dance, story, and projection come together gracefully in this play that depicts the emotional and social realities of gang violence.  While its stories are rooted in interviews with Jamestown/Rexdale residents who live the daily experience of crime and loss, the themes of this show are universal and should resonate well beyond Toronto.  This show is as much about young people’s rampant exposure to death as it is about the transformation which death can lead to – if we let it.

The performances and staging lend themselves beautifully here – albeit heavily – to the transformative power of hope and the desire for legacy on behalf of their loved ones.  Mothers Nadia (Beryl Bain) and Audette (Quancetia Hamilton) are striking in their convictive refusal to let the death of their children leave them as victims and the images of their loved ones as tainted.  Together with a strong cast of actors who bring life to the words of people who did not simply choose to be exposed to a life of misconduct and violence, they illuminate the struggles of that reality and the difficulties associated with transcending it.  It all begins with the cast singing Amazing Grace as they filter onto the stage, surprisingly, from the house where they have been skillfully planted as audience members.  From there, the narrative takes shape as we see them extending support to Nadia who is ominously preparing for the funeral of her son.  But before that fully materializes we are taken back to the funeral of Audette’s son during which Nadia’s is to be shot, in fact.  Other than Nadia, all cast members brilliantly transform in and out of characters both within and between segments of the play, sometimes acting as bystanders, sometimes the direct objects of grief, and other times the perpetrators of delinquent behavior themselves.  It’s refreshing, in fact, to hear the stories of the latter who describe the link between their childhood and their current actions: among other examples, some did not have access to sports teams or other activities to occupy time, some were expected to provide for their families – no questions asked, some seemed to have no possibilities in the real workforce.

Perhaps, the most developed aspect in this show is the advocating for collective responsibility when it comes to issues as dark as those faced in underprivileged communities. Pastor (Richard Stewart) delivers some of the most powerful lines in a sermon which is about understanding that it is more than who got killed or how; it is about how we can make our environment safer, how we can empower young people to foster a new kind of life, one which is not destined for devastation.  “Our streets are becoming battlegrounds, our homes are becoming prison cells.”  Later on he proclaims: “Not all of us are evil.  But we are all responsible.”  Meanwhile, a mother asks the burning questions of what she could have possibly done differently as a strong and independent role model for her child, and her dilemma is echoed by the anonymous quotes projected above the stage: probable guardians of deceased Jamestown residents themselves pondering if it would have made a difference had they tied their kids to a chair or locked them to their beds, ironically, do not seem that radical.  Of course, we know that the answer is no.  And in a more touching scene which rings to the same tone of accountability, Audette recounts how she spoiled her son rotten despite the loathing of her colleagues who suggested she save more towards his education.  She proudly states that she must have done right making his life most enjoyable since his future was never to materialize anyhow.  The point is that while we like to oversimplify the outcome of delinquency by placing the blame on one individual, like a mother, tragedy, in actuality, is implicated in many differing facets of the spaces we occupy and the people we interact with.  In other words, we all have a stake in the outcome of crime and violence, and a duty to seek change.

Awake’s humane exposure to injustice and the compassionate quest for its contrary, evokes a special sense of fortitude to not “give in” to the marginalization imposed by the media, and enduring stigmas which paint a sole negative image of our neighborhoods. All too often shows of this nature risk leaving individuals feeling alienated, or helpless as far as what to do about it.  Instead we are, at the very least, hopeful for a future with less violence, less families that need to suffer, and, perhaps, even motivated to help create stronger paths for today’s youth.

Awake plays until January 13th at Factory Theatre and I hear tickets are quickly selling out for most of the festival’s programming.