Presented by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, New Harlem Productions and Great Canadian Theatre Company
The First Stone is playwright Donna-Michelle St Bernard’s lyrical examination of child soldiers and the community devastated by their abduction. There is a stirring musicality to the text and movement, though it took a while for the weight of it all to register.
Inspired by her time in Uganda and the Acholi people, St. Bernard’s play presents a poetic depiction of an African village. Director Yvette Nolan spreads the stylized action out across a wide playing area. Jackie Chau’s set design features thatched roofing and a line of children’s clothing strung above folding screens. Throughout, a striking motif of cracked earth suggests fissures in the land and its people.
The Ancestor (Tsholo Khalema), intimately representing past generations as a single individual, laments the violent division he triggered with the inciting first stone. His presence haunts this fable, even as we focus in on Boy (Daniel Jelani Ellis) and Girl (Makambe K Simamba). Their petty squabbles eventually give way to barbaric atrocities.
Along with a number of other children from the village, their resistance to cruelty is gradually worn down as they are forced to endure and inflict physically and psychologically cruelty. Under the brutal leadership of a military figure, Grandad (Michael-Lamont Lytle), they become props a pseudo-holy conflict.
In a subtle though deeply evocative theatrical flourish, the traumatic disruption of this community is given tactile form. Early on, the performers playfully draw various elements of the village landscape in chalk. These gardens and walkways are gradually scuffed and erased by violent movement, the remnants of communal life smeared onto their clothing.
The storybook aesthetic is completed with a Brechtian touch—chapter headings with brief descriptions are projected at the top of each scene. Key lines of dialogue are also projected, highlighting pivotal ideas. At first, the script and heightened performance style fell flat for me. In retrospect, the artifice and affect do work to temper the more harrowing aspects of the story.
Though my immersion in this world was slow and cumulative, the finale hit me with astonishing emotional force. Struggling to re-integrate themselves back into the community, these children must face themselves and each other before they can negotiate an uncertain future.
“We are more than what we have done.” It’s a deceptively simple phrase that resonates. Though innocence is lost, the human capacity for compassion and forgiveness prevails. The First Stone acknowledges our dark potential and honours our resilience.