Settling in at the High Park Amphitheatre, my eye lingers on a sea of diverse faces—in particular: families. Over the years, many productions at the Dream in High Park have delighted family audiences. Dixon Road, a new musical, offers a distinct perspective. There have been few opportunities for immigrant families to see their experience represented in this popular form.
Produced by The Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre in association with Canadian Stage, Fatuma Adar’s musical tells the story of a Somali family fleeing civil war in the early 1990s and taking refuge in the Little Mogadishu neighbourhood of Toronto.
Adar’s writing (book, music and lyrics)—which blends traditional Somali melodies, R&B and contemporary verse—provides all of the familiar, satisfying musical theatre tropes. Adar’s true brilliance, though, lies in resonant details. She offers up lines of verse that hit with sharp, aching clarity.
Like her father, Zaki (Gavin Hope), a government appointed photographer, Batoul (Germaine Konji) has artistic aspirations. Weathered notebook clutched tightly to her chest, she dreams of being a writer. Her feverishly scribbled observations about her family’s situation reveal both talent and insight.
In Toronto, they are frustrated by social systems that diminish their achievements and nudge them towards menial, dissatisfying opportunities. As she sees her father’s spirit crushed, the pressure to succumb mounts. She embarks on a journey to reclaim her ambition, help her father rediscover his worth, and guide her family back into their groove.
It’s a tremendous weight on this young woman’s shoulders. Konji conveys all that struggle with grace and fortitude. Though Batoul’s connection to her father is the dramatic hub of Dixon Road, relationships to each charismatic member of her extended family are given ample room to breath.
You can see the origins of Batoul’s willfulness and determination in her mother, Safiya (Starr Domingue). Her immature squabbling with “cousin,” Yousef (Danté Prince), pays off beautifully when they eventually connect. Yousef’s father, Abdi (Michael-Lamont Lytle) is a compelling foil for Zaki. His attempts to temper his friend’s naive over-confidence are hilarious until they are heartbreaking.
Especially poignant is Batoul’s grandmother, Halima (Shakura S’Aida)—the one family member left behind in Somalia, determined to die on the soil that has been her home. For Batoul, she is a humbling reminder that her frustrations at being a woman existing in a culture are not new.
The ensemble—Travae Williams, Omar Forrest, Rose-Mary Harbans and Krystle Chance—provide purposeful exuberance throughout.
Director/Choreographer Ray Hogg’s production feels tender and intimate even during bursts of spectacle. The aesthetic of the production is a stylistic conversation between Somali and Canadian identities. African fabrics in vibrant colours are juxtaposed with the cold, drab tones of an oppressive Canadian winter. With colour and texture, designers Brian Dudkiewicz (set) and Georges Michael Fanfan (costumes) suggest the psychological shifts that occur during the family’s initial displacement and their dynamic reinvention.
A fun highlight of this production is the family dinner at Chippy Cheese (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) that erupts into a full-on dance party with a chipmunk mascot. This delightful scene also features traditional Somali dance as the women of the community take a moment to celebrate themselves in defiance of their stressful, fraught circumstances.
Dixon Road has several ear-wormy numbers with universal appeal, though the story’s raw power comes from its specific focus on a sense of displacement, the pressures of cultural assimilation, and the struggle to reconcile familial responsibility with self-determination.
I imagine it holds particular weight for those immigrant families in the audience—parents holding their children close, discovering that their experience is not only worth telling, but has entertainment value to rival anything on Broadway.