Russian play gets a Nigerian makeover for Toronto stage

Chekhov’s play ‘Three Sisters’ reimagined with Black cast

by Neil Armstrong

Aficionados of theatre will have a chance to see a new production with a Black cast at the Soulpepper Theatre premiering March 7th.  

Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

The adaptation of Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov’s play, “Three Sisters, which was written in 1900, and reimagined in 2019 by Nigeria-born, British poet and playwright, Inua Ellams, will be showcased in a collaboration of Soulpepper Theatre and Obsidian Theatre.

The play, first performed in 1901 at the Moscow Art Theatre, has been recreated to locate the iconic characters in Owerri, Nigeria, in 1967, on the brink of the Biafran Civil War.

A year has passed since their father died but the three sisters – Lolo, Nne Chukwu and Udo – are still grappling with his loss. What’s more, they’re stuck in a small village in Owerri, Nigeria and are longing to return to the cosmopolitan city of their birth, Lagos. What they don’t know is that the Biafran Civil War is about to erupt and change their lives and their country. Chekhov’s classic play is reimagined to explore the devastation of colonialism and a fight for emancipation through the lens of a family and love, notes a synopsis of the play.  

Three Sisters

Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, artistic director of Obsidian Theatre Company, is the director of “Three Sisters” by Inua Ellams after Chekhov which opens on March 7 and runs for ten days at Soulpepper Theatre in the Distillery District, with a few previews starting February 29.

A decade ago, she was at Soulpepper Academy, a training program for theatre artists, when she first experienced “Three Sisters” by Chekhov. It was produced by Soulpepper, and actor d’bi.young was the only Black person in it. Tindyebwa Otu was mesmerized by her presence and performance.

She felt a personal connection to the story and was asked in a scene study to play one of the sisters. As one of three sisters and a brother, she felt a connection to the Russian family — their longings, disappointments, joys and failures.

“But I am looking at it inside my own body as an African woman and as an immigrant. The characters in the play are longing for home, a place that used to be home that is no longer, and there is this desire to go back to that place.”

When she was appointed as the new artistic director of Obsidian in August 2020, this was one of the first plays she read, and she was fascinated to see Ellams’s reimagination of it in this context of an African country in the 1960s.

Tindyebwa Otu said it was telling a story about a part of African history that very few people in the west knew and it did so in an epic dramatic way.  The play also has an all-Black cast which was thrilling and something rarely seen.

After talking about it for a couple years, she and Weyni Mengesha, artistic directorof Soulpepper Theatre Company, decided to make it happen. “It came together from the desire to do something meaningful and epic together,” said Tindyebwa Otu.

She said assembling the team was a big part of the production and it was exciting “to be able to see, wow, we have such a breadth of Black talent in Toronto who can tell this story and do it well.”

The cast includes Akosua Amo-Adem, Virgilia Griffith, Daren A. Herbert, Sterling Jarvis, JD Leslie, Tawiah M’Carthy, Ngabo Nabea, Makambe K. Simamba, Tony Ofori, Oyin Oladejo, Ordena Stephens-Thompson and Amaka Umeh.

Tindyebwa Otu said the play is humorous and relatable because it focuses on human beings going through their journey, “but they look like you, they may sound like you, they may remind you of someone who looks like you or sounds like you.” At the heart of the play is a look at the impact of colonialism and neo-colonialism on the African continent.