This review is part of a critical writing mentorship program developed by SummerWorks with NOW Magazine. SummerWorks has not put any parameters or limitations on the writers’ responses.
I Celebrate the Art of Breathing is the encapsulating title of Elijah’s unpublished book of poetry, Elijah being the pensive main character of Jordan Laffrenier’s play in development: A New Black Poet. The 45-minute SummerWorks Lab presentation took place at The Pop-Up Shop, a barren storefront occupying 1282 Bloor St. W. Although it was not the most aesthetically pleasing venue, the audience was reminded of the make-believe grit of theatre—the same reason I might choose to sink into a dive bar over schmoozing at a boujee lounge.
Jordan welcomed all 10 of us, socially-distanced ticket holders to the presentation, my first IRL show since lockdown. His opening remarks gave us insight to the creative process, revealing that this version of the script was written and rehearsed inside of a two-week period—no small feat for a predominantly solo-show. Elijah, played by fresh-faced Danté Prince, delivers each line as if he were in a packed house, while still conveying the paralyzation of an artist who hasn’t quite ‘arrived’ in his career.
The playwright cited war as the spawn of curiosity behind this project, originally designed to be a series of lectures examining the role that formal education plays in recruiting/glorifying soldiers. From my vantage point, this was a story about the war within, fueled by contention with love, or a lack thereof. The play cycles through Elijah’s primary dysfunctional relationships, including the callousness of his father, the lack of recognition as a professional poet, and battling his emotionally-unavailable queerness.
Co-director Aaron Jan and co-conspirator Beau Dixon complimented the workshop, animating a subtle semi-circle of black boxes, an array of mismatched lamps, and a music stand, paired with the nostalgic sounds of soulful music.
Things become three-dimensional when Elijah unintentionally summons the ghost of Langston Hughes in an abandoned library. Hughes, embodied beautifully by Shakiel Rollock, fills up the space on the adjacent side of the storefront. The layering of text and dance heightens the use of poetry, inviting us to simultaneously hear the words and listen to the body.
One moment feels rushed. Elijah shifts gears mid-way through the piece to express what it’s like ‘being Black in Canada.’ Up until that point there are street references and local slang that place us in Toronto, but this is an opportunity to really get one-on-one with the audience. The fast pace of this story might benefit from a breath there.
My favorite poets are ones who, through revealing our pain, give us a reason to smile again. As James Baldwin gently put it, “Art is here to prove, and to help one bear, the fact that all safety is an illusion.” The early form of this play has a promising life. With a supergroup of collaborators and a truth-seeking playwright, A New Black Poet is following in the footsteps of the legendary old Black poets.
Written by Natasha Morris
Photo by Anoosha Kargarfard