SPEAKING OF SNEAKING
Ellis handles it deftly with plenty of wit and truth.
By Stephen Weir
It was a rare experience for me to attend live theatre and have the writer and star of the play I am about to see check my ticket, escort me to my seat and suggest I read the programme because I will probably have trouble with the dialect. It was opening night for Speaking of Sneaking and the room was packed with people wanting to see what the buzz about Daniel Jelani Ellis, the son of famed Jamaican comedian Owen Blakka Ellis, is all about.
The 28-year old Jamaican Canadian actor has been working since 2010 on a one-man play that he describes as being “a mash-up of dance, poetry and pantomime”, Last week the theatre world got to see how the project is progressing; based on the audience response at Opening Night, this is a winner. Speaking of Sneaking has a limited run at the Theatre Centre on Queen Street West. It will be closing this Saturday.
“You look like a Yardi audience,” he said speaking to everyone but me and a handful of other ” foreigners.”
“ Yardies know how to bring it – we like to make NOISE.” After urging the full house to get loud, the lights went down and the strange, funny play begins.
Over the next hour, Ellis tells a winding story of growing up gay in Jamaica, making a go of it in Foreign (Canada), encountering mythical African spiders while slipping between being a young boy, an underemployed grocery store check-out guy and his aging Jamaican grandmother. And yes, there are times that the Yardies in the theatre do what Yardies are wont to do when they love something –as instructed, they made loud!
Daniel Ellis is a smallish, lithe man with the body of an acrobat. He is also a human chameleon, magically turning from a five-year old boy to a back-bent granny with a flick of the wrist. He needs only a large barrel and a bench on wheels to tell a story that is part about life in a big cold city and part steeped in African / Jamaican mythology.
The barrel is a huge care package filled with the things that generations of Foreign moms, dads and children send back to the family they have left behind in Jamaica. The word “Ginnal ” is written on its side. It is the name of Ellis’ character and is subtly referencing the old stories of the Jamaican trickster. In the barrel is Ginnal’s own history – the props that tell his brief life story.
Inside are the shoes that his grandmother sent him when she was in Foreign to help him dress for school. As he pulls cloth from the barrel, the audience learns about his family, his friends, his talents and his differences. He is introduced early to the term Batty boy and decides, with the help of Anansi, a story-telling spider of African folklore, that he too must move to Foreign for both opportunity and safety.
This is a first-hand experience tale and Ellis handles it deftly with plenty of wit and truth.
Life in Foreign is neither “one love” nor “cool running”. Working three menial jobs in what we presume is Toronto, Ginnal struggles to pay the rent, feed himself, send money back to Jamaica and still fill that barrel.
There isn’t anything he won’t do. Ginnal runs home from his checkout job to erotically play with his feet (in wildly coloured socks) in front of his computer screen for a paying foot fetish porn customer.
Life in Foreign is tough and the longer he stays away, his connection with Jamaica and family changes. He can’t find the courage to answer his grandmother’s long distance call and suffers mightily when he learns of his first love’s marriage to a woman. He is a man set between two worlds – and like the play itself, the story ends as a work in a progress.
“ I was raised in St. Catherine in Jamaica,” Ellis tells the Caribbean Camera. He came to Canada in Grade 11 and has been here ever since. A graduate of the National Theatre School of Canada, he has been ” involved with” over 30 plays, television and movie projects. He is a playwright, an actor, acrobat and a clown. He is also the son of Blakka, one of the top comedians in the Caribbean
“ I just got off a run as Phil in Risky Phil at Young People’s Theatre. After this closes? Next up is a workshop of ’26 Fairview’, a play I developed while in the Obsidian Playwrights Unit.”
He will also be fine tuning Speaking of Sneaking. And before it is performed again, I hope he can find a way to get non-Jamaican ears fully understanding his funny and moving script. When that happens, this four star play will be hit right out of the Yard(ie).