Two great plays at Summer Works Festival

By Stephen Weir

Twenty-nine years on, and the annual Summer Works festival is still presenting cutting edge theatre in downtown Toronto.  The environment, class discrimination, sexual orientation and yes, even the social impact of parking tickets are some of the themes of the 30 dances, plays and music that will be performed on the boards for the next week.

The Caribbean Camera has been attending the plays since the launch of the festival ten days ago.  Two that are recommended by the paper are “St Peon of Parkdale” and “Rochdale”.

Parking Ticket Philosopher – St Peon of Parkdale

People who drive Mercedes, Audis and Jaguars hold 80% of the parking permits in Toronto. Don’t argue with the Meter Maid. If she said it, it must be true!

The Beatles sang about “Lovely Rita Meter Maid” on their album “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Fifty years later, lovely Rita Mae Nelson is the new lady on the block. She is a Jamaican Canadian Parking Enforcement Officer  (PEO) played by Second City comedian Jamillah Ross.

The outdoor 50-minute walking play begins in a park near Queen Street East and Dovercourt in a district whose streets are lined with badly parked cars.

Ticket holders are told that we are new PEOs and that Rita Mae Nelson is going to take us on a training tour of the on street swamp.  She has the help of Moses a female safety officer who, like the biblical Moses, parts the sea of moving cars to make sure the audience makes it across the busy streets safely while the play unfolds.

It is noisy on the street so she speaks through a loud squeaky megaphone when needed.  Volunteers carry chairs for older people in the audience who join in the parade – people come out of their apartments and also tag along.

St. Peon of Parkdale tackles the isms, poorly parked cars, and the intersectionality of privilege.  It is a fun experience but there is an underlying message about life in a big city. Rule number one? “Walk Like Da Boss!”

Rita on the move

Rita Mae Nelson is a street philosopher who hands out her views on the world faster than she dishes out her indestructible yellow tickets.  She loves the new tickets, by the way – “No one can tear them up and throw them in your face!”

“Getting a ticket is like getting a paint ball in the face in the first seconds of the game. It ruins your whole day (unless of course you are rich and don’t care)”.

Actress Jamillah Ross strikes an imposing pose as she stops to crack jokes and dispense  Caribbean wisdom.  She is 6ft tall and is decked out a PEO uniform completed with dark cop sunglasses.

Ross is a Canadian comedian, actress, and singer-songwriter. She trained through Toronto’s The Second City. She is best known for her appearances in the movies “Pay the Ghost”, “Picture Day” and “You Might As Well Live”.

Toronto’s meter maid will be giving two more walking performances both on Friday (7pm and 9pm). Tickets are $15.00 The tour starting point is located at Toronto Media Arts Centre – 32 Lisgar St.

Rochdale – It’s the sixties, man. Free love and free rent come to Toronto. Black Power too.

If you don’t know what Rochdale College was, that probably means you weren’t living in the Toronto in the late Sixties when Rochdale was the centre of all things counter culture … including Black Power.

It was a large residence on Bloor Street near Spadina which housed over 800 people; most of them love bead-wearing students.  It was launched in 1968 as an experiment in a student run, free form alternative education set in a hippie run co-op.

Rochdale lasted only 8-years.  Closure came when the students stopped paying rent and the building started falling apart. At the time the police and neighbours said it had become a haven for drugs and crime. It was closed in 1975 when the authorities actually welded the front doors shut. Irony of ironies, it is now a senior’s residence and many of the original residents are now seniors and could move in again!

The play was originally created by David Yee, and is now showing in the Summer Works under the direction of Nina Lee Aquino, as a project for student actors at York University. Yee won the 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award.

With a cast of 14 grooving on the garbage strewn set, the hour-long production moves quickly. It’s 1969. The Vietnam War rages on. Apollo 11 lands on the moon. The Chicago Seven are in chains. Nixon is elected. Trudeau is in office. The FLQ bombs the Montreal Stock Exchange. And in Toronto, Rochdale College – an experiment in cooperative housing and alternative education – is about to become very famous for all the wrong reason.

While the 14 young actors, mostly white, rap about drugs, free love, draft dodgers, Vietnam War, nihilism and hippy poetry, one character, Athena is talking about Black Panther Huey P. Newton, the Chicago Seven, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and most importantly racism in Toronto.

Claudia Hamilton

Athena, with her Sly and the Family Stone Afro, is played by York U grad 23-year old Claudia Hamilton. This is Group show riffing on the issues of the Sixties but it is Hamilton who owns the stage when she raises a black fist and shouts out about Black issues. Since it was set forty years ago this is really a peak at the genesis of Black Power here in Toronto the Good.

Hamilton describes herself as Caribbean — born in Etobicoke.  Growing up in the Foster Care system, she has found happiness in writing, music and community theater. “I hope to one day to open an organization for young aspiring black artists and unrepresented you to express themselves freely.”

Rochdale has turned out to be the darling of the Summer Works Festival. Showing at the Theatre Centre on Queen ST West, tickets are snapped up as soon as they become available. The last two performances are on Saturday afternoon and early Sunday evening.