Sunday, June 1, 2014

Review: (Toronto / Theatre) Promises to a Divided City

An Exercise in Engagement
by Jason Booker

A piece credited to 32 writer/performers, Promises to a Divided City explores the stories of individuals, often lost in the louder collective narrative of the booming metropolis we call Toronto. Instead of catering to typical narrative, audiences are greeted by activities and anecdotes, interactions with multicultural youth from various suburban and underprivileged neighbourhoods.
A guide informs the assembly in the lobby about the background of the building – a recently renovated Carnegie library transformed into a theatre – to emphasize the link between wealth and its redistribution, also sometimes patronizingly considered charity. That is followed by an interactive presentation about the shifting Toronto statistics where the middle-class gradually becomes the low-income, since the average income skews higher as the rich keep getting richer.

Were these tidbits of information new? No. So maybe they missed the mark in having informed audiences present and should emphasize that the performance is more intended for a younger or less politically active population… but how much control does a company have over who shows up to their shows?
However, hearing the data in a different context was definitely of interest. The spin these mostly teenaged performers have put on pure data demands recognition. Promises to a Divided City uniquely uses all the space The Theatre Centre has to offer, with beautiful environmental design from Kalpna Patel, including a demographic line-up and a fantastical dreamworld complete with glowing skyscrapers and suspended clouds.
In one section, referencing a shelter filled with temporary beds, each audience member is asked to lie down while an assortment of performers circulate, whispering their stories into eager ears. Some are moral-based, some are a childhood memory. Some call attention to gender, age, race or religious discrimination because they are specific stories, illustrating how privilege and wealth play out in these performers’ lives. Not all of the performers are polished (one rushed through her story so quickly that the words became a blur) but they all have a story that needs to be heard and, thankfully, Mammalian Diving Reflex has made that possible with this show.
Finally, the promises: audiences are asked to select a location from the edges of the city to visit, a commitment that will be monitored and a task to perform while visiting a specific park or restaurant. While I appreciated the diversity of the restaurants and the locations, however too many seemed to be based on consumption and monetary expenditure for my liking, seemingly making an assumption that the audience earns more by virtue of having bought a ticket. Reporting back in a year’s time, having read our donated novel (yes, there is a gift for participants in this show!), audiences are asked to engage with a narrative unlike their own. To make a promise to understand someone else’s story.

NOTE: Mammalian Diving Reflex will present All The Sex I've Ever Had June 12 - 15 as part of  Luminato.


  1. Hey Jason, thanks for checking out the show. Just wanted to quickly point out that you were watching characters, not real people. The political views expressed were not of the creative team but of the characters we created for effect. See my explanation in the comments over on this site for what was going on:

  2. also, the invocation of consumption and monetary expenditure was deliberate. In a consumer society these are the markers of inequity. The promises were almost all designed with redistribution in mind, with the audience's money - in whatever small way - heading up to small businesses in the inner 'burbs. It's not about how much but where you spend it: at a restaurant downtown or one in the burbs..

  3. Thanks for the clarification, Darren.


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