Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Review: (Toronto) Sia

Brendan McMurtry-Howlett and Thomas Olajide (photo credit: Sandra Lefrancois)

Searing Sia
Cahoots at Factory serves up pain and compassion
by Jasmine Chen

Last night’s opening of SIA at The Factory Theatre could not have fallen on a more appropriate day. On World Theatre Day, when we were asking ourselves, what is the purpose of theatre?, SIA answered. Matthew Mackenzie’s new play does what great theatre is supposed to do, challenge our perceptions, provoke thought, and be a mirror to society, reflecting what can sometimes be hard truths to swallow. SIA is grueling, painful, unforgiving at times, but in the end full of compassion. 
Much of the power of this play lies in its fearlessness to pose extremely difficult questions...

Nicholas Summers (Brendan McMurtry-Howlett) is a young Canadian volunteering in a refugee camp in Ghana where he meets Saa Abraham Wonleh (Thomas Olajide) a former child soldier from Liberia. What first appears as a budding friendship quickly turns, as Summers is taken hostage in Abraham’s desperate attempt to get the world’s attention. If Abraham’s demands are not met, Nick will be sacrificed. 
Much of the power of this play lies in its fearlessness to pose extremely difficult questions to a first world audience such as, what kind of entitlement do we think we have? And what do fundamental human rights like “equality” mean, when that idea simply does not apply in Abraham’s world? His commitment to keep Summers hostage only proves that not all lives are placed with the same value. His faith in achieving his objective lies in the conviction that the Western World will fight to gain back one of its own. 

SIA is perfectly cast. McMurtry-Howlett perfectly embodies Summers, an impassioned do-gooder full of ideals and hopes of “making a difference” who quickly has his illusions shattered. His frank portrayal of a young man with the best of intentions hits home, he could easily be someone you know. In the play we are told that Abraham is demonized by the media, but Olajide forces us to see things his way, he is just doing what he feels is necessary to right a wrong. His relationship with his sister Sia (Jajube Mandiela) is the heart of the play. Through the scenes between Saa and Sia, we understand Saa’s drive to take extreme measures. Mandiela is everything that Sia needs to be, strong willed, playful, and fearless. As Saa instructs Sia in preparation for her presentation to the UN peace moderators, Sia always finds a way to teach her brother a lesson in the process. Saa’s admiration and love for his sister pushes him through the play all the way to the breath-taking end. Nina Lee Aquino, the director and AD of Cahoots has taken a difficult play and mined it for every bit of truth it holds. Michelle Ramsay’s lighting supports the emotional journey of the play. She expertly uses color to create atmosphere and visually represents the emotional states of the characters. The set, a wall of plastic water bottles, garbage, stacked tires and ripped cloth, brings us into the chaotic world of Liberia and the hostage holding area. It is a scene of squalor, and the water bottle wall shakes precariously, giving a sense of unease and something impending. 
I cannot think of any other show currently playing in the city that is more socially relevant than SIA. In the wake of the KONY 2012 campaign, where the world witnessed a viral tidal wave of ‘internet activism’, SIA forces us to look at ourselves and examine our intentions. There are also documentary videos available to view on the Cahoots website  about the making of SIA, from groundwork and workshops in Liberia to the rehearsal process back in Canada. SIA is an incredible story executed with honesty and detail. Now get off the computer, out of the house, and go see SIA! 

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