Converging at an upstage corner of the space, huge ribbons of stretched plastic extend out towards the audience. Rachel Forbes’ set is both ominous and tantalizing as it traps us in a massive spider’s web. From this mammoth structure emerges Anansi, a folkloric trickster spider, holding us captive—though his intentions here aren’t predatory; he’s a key figure in and teller of this story we’ve gathered to witness.
speaking of sneaking is created and performed by daniel jelani ellis. Pulling from his own experience of growing up queer in Jamaica and emigrating to Canada, his portrait of Ginnal feels both authentic in its attention to detail and poetic in its execution. The term “ginnal” refers to someone who is untrustworthy, and our protagonist, true to his Patois namesake, is a clever chameleon. He adapts his voice and body language to navigate through homophobia in his native Jamaica, be dutiful to the family he left behind, seduce paying voyeurs on web-cam and assert himself against a barrage of forces—both within and without.
As Ginnal’s naive boyhood ambition to come to Canada is finally realized, he discovers the traumatic cost of all this milk and honey.
This production—presented by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Groundwork Redux and Obsidian Theatre—is crafted for maximum visual and auditory impact by director d’bi.young anitafrika. ellis is a captivating presence, shifting between several colourful characters and invoking a very palpable sense of place. Inhabiting Forbes’ costume—a glittering, feathery homage to the pageantry of Caribbean Carnival—and Fairy J’s hypnotic choreography, ellis plays mas as Anansi, relishing the furtive arachnid movements. In some particularly exhilarating moments, a bungee cord and harness allow him to careen and career throughout the open space.
Designers André du Toit (lighting) and Stephon Smith (sound) conjure a world that feels both cosmic and animalistic. Splashes of pink, green, yellow and blue light bounce off plastic spindles while an eerie and sensual soundscape suggests the presence of entities simultaneously amorphous and distinct. The gestalt is quite breathtaking, though I must confess some nuances of Ginnal’s humanity get lost in the spectacle.
First introduced in 2010 through the Buddies’ Young Creators Unit, I caught the 2018 production for Why Not Theatre’s RISER program. Though it lacked the astonishing production value on display here, there are many aspects of that humble iteration that I greatly miss. The Theatre Centre’s incubator space allows for a much greater intimacy and so ellis was able to more fully interact with the audience and convey subtler, quieter truths.
Specifically, I remember his attentive and mischievous time with us before the show properly began—flitting about, introducing himself, explaining “Yard” (Jamaica) and “Foreign” (a catch-all term for abroad) and encouraging “Yardie” patron behaviour that would be considered rude by the standards of a more stuffy theatrical establishment. There is a segment in this current production that serves the same purpose, though it feels less casual and more performative.
This production is certainly thrilling and immersive, though in a more majestic and textural way. And ellis is, as always, intensely charismatic.