By Stephen Weir
Take a bow, Rhoma Spencer, take a bow. You are the toast of Toronto’s theatre world for your current role in the new assembly play The Solitudes. Critical reviews. A quarter page colour picture of you in the Toronto Star. And there is an incredible TTC poster of you with hands on hips glaring and scaring all of us riding the Red Rocket this month.
Rhoma Spencer is an actor, director, storyteller and broadcast journalist who began her career in her birth nation of Trinidad & Tobago.
On stage, performing in TV shows, movies parts, public events; heck, I have even seen her in costume at a high profile Scarborough funeral a few weeks ago. Now based for the most part here in Toronto, Spencer continues to be one of the busiest live performance actresses in the city.
This week she is a brooding, scowling and sometimes hilarious presence on the Harbourfront stage with the Alunia Theatre’s new production of The Solitudes. Written and directed by artistic director Beatriz Pizano, this plot-less play has eight women on stage for 90 minutes passionately emoting about how they got here and what life is like for them in Canada. Some of the actresses shone, others plodded, but no one can touch the power of Rhoma Spencer. She has the Force. No surprise all eyes in the theatre are zeroed, laser style, on Spencer.
The eight women follow the thread of history and the bloodlines that brought each of them to this country. Is this a home or a “homeland?” Their offering: eight recipes for transforming our own solitudes.
Be it an indigenous survivor of residential schools, an Arabian woman who makes it through the Armenian genocide, a Polish Jew, the sole survivor in her family to live though the Holocaust, or the Italian female who just wants to be accepted, these are stories that resonate with everyone in the theatre.
And what about our Rhoma? It is hard to tell what comes out of her mouth – is it fiction or is it an ad-libbed truth about her own life.
Writer director Beatriz Pizano has built a script based in part upon the 1967 novel by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez mashed up with the personal stories of the individual actresses working the play. The Solitudes describes itself as being “a provocative, humorous, and visually charged experimental performance”.
Spencer plays three different but interconnected women. There is the Ghanaian Rhoma defending her African traditions of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). And there is the Trinidadian obeah dishing out love potions and sage advice. We also meet the
Toronto-Rhoma dealing with her weight, the diets she has tried and failed, the comments she has had to endure.
She is the tallest and biggest person on stage. Spencer never just stands or sits, she stares and glares at the audience as she spins out her lines. She makes her body tell the story. A flick of hand, raised eyebrow, even the way she breathes; this woman has the Force.
Rhoma dominates an argument she has with Italian actress Rosalba Martinni as she demands the right for her community to practice FGM. So scary and powerful is her delivery, someone in the audience (or was it from the stage) asks if she is for real or is that just part of the script!
It is a tough play for the male species to watch. It is not that we males come off badly it is just we don’t come off at all. Men get scant mention in this script. This is really a woman’s play about, by and, for women.
Back in my school days, it was compulsory to read and study Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan. The book’s title refers to a perceived lack of communication, and moreover a lack of will to communicate, between French and English Canadians.
Written in 1945, the novel helped students understand the great divide that existed between Quebec and the rest of the country. Seventy-five years later there are way more than a couple of Solitudes – this play teaches us about the impact of separation that have overtaken women’s lives be they indigenous or new arrivals.
The play is currently showing at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre (231 Queens Quay West) and ends Saturday night. If you do manage to get a ticket, make sure you give a standing oh at the end like I did – you have to, Rhoma Spencer is glaring at ya.
Cast: Lara Arabian, Brefny Caribou, Liliana Suarez, Janis Mayers, Rosalba Martinni, Michelle Polak, Sofia Rodriguez, and Rhoma Spencer