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Saturday, 18 July 2015 12:58

The Postman’s David Ferry – A National Treasure

Written by  Dennis Kucherawy
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Without question, “The Postman” is the runaway hit of the PanAm Games.  It’s thrilling, powerfully emotional, and, at times sad and disturbing, but ultimately joyful and uplifting.

“The Postman” is not just a politically correct, feel-good romp celebrating Toronto the Good.  The script does not shy away from blunt, racist confrontation.  The gritty language and the resulting gravitas may upset some.

Moreover, “The Postman reminds us once again what a potent theatrical force its conceiver and director David Ferry is.  Indeed, this thespian shaman is a national treasure.  He is an original; I can’t think of anyone who comes close to his talent and accomplishments.

 

“The Postman” tells the story of Toronto… and likely Canada’s … first black postman, named Albert Jackson, portrayed by Laurence Dean Ifill. (He is known for his portrayal of Bronco Davis on Degrassi High.)

It begins with a welcome from Jackson, inviting you to accompany him on a walk through his history.  The story then flashes back to Delaware in the USA where we meet his angry and depressed father John, played by Maurice Dean Witt, and his mother Anna Maria (Karen Glave.)  As the story leaps forward and back in time, we learn how his brave mother took six of her children and fled slavery via the Underground Railway in hopes of freedom and a new life in Canada.

Once there, they learn they have to fight for their right to be treated with dignity, to be trusted and respected as equals, enjoying the same rights and privileges as the white people of Victorian Toronto.

Racism bars Jackson from assuming his job as a letter carrier until our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, played broadly and comically by veteran actor/writer/director Layne Coleman, intervenes.  Running for a second term as PM, he sees the political advantage in securing the nascent black vote if he comes to Jackson’s aid and abolishes Jackson’s racist enemies.

Another theme is the struggle for women’s rights and the fight against social injustice, lucidly portrayed in a stylized scene as his mother and her daughters bitterly chant rhythmically and poetically as they mime doing the laundry.

A preacher, portrayed by the stentorian-voiced Roy Lewis, cries out against silently tolerating abuse. Ngao Nabea as Jackson’s brother lashes out against the white racism he encounters while Sugith Varughese as the politician named Earwax, comically delivers a bombastic election speech loaded with nonsensical, racist twaddle, non-sequiturs and the white noise we still hear to this day:  sound and fury signifying nothing, as the Bard would say.

A lovely sub-plot follows the friendship between Jackson and Astrid van Peet, played by Claire Armstrong (“After Miss Julie, another excellent David Ferry directed production), who empathizes with Jackon’s struggle as a social outcast.

As you can tell, Ferry has conceived, directed and cast a team of our finest established and emerging musical and theatrical talents.  The youngest in the cast is a 12-year-old child named Naomi Barriffe with poise beyond her years.  She sings beautifully, especially in her sweet solo in the finale.

One thing is certain:  the company certainly loves performing this show.

Ferry’s writing team is an accomplished and sophisticated one who, in addition to himself, consists of Lisa Codrington, Leah-Simone Bowen, Joseph Jomo Pierre, company member Roy Lewis, CBC actor and writer (“Little Mosque on the Prairie,” “Entitlement”) Sugith Varughese and Andrew “The Real McCoy” Moodie.  Each one has written a scene representing an episode in Jackson’s life.

For example, Moodie chose to write about Jackson’s first day as a way of conveying the racism Jackson experienced early on the job. His white colleagues, who deem+ him to be “an inferior Negro,” tell him he has “no right to deliver the mail.”  They refuse to explain his route to him and instead give him a broom to sweep the office.

Andrew Moodie, author of the scene, told the Toronto Star he recalled his own experience when, as a teenager, he was hired over the phone for a job at a restaurant in Ottawa. When he arrived, he was told the position was filled.

It’s fair, as Jon Kaplan of Toronto’s NOW magazine noted, to observe that some episodes “are not well tied together,” needing better segues and that shifts in style and tone are at time awkward.  But to get this far in such little time with so little resources is an achievement in itself to be championed.

Guitarist Brooke Blackburn (Soulpepper’s “The Nina Project” among others) and Saidah Baba Talibah (2015 Dora nominee – Outstanding Performance, Female for Necessary Angel/Canadian Stage’s Charles Aznavour song cycle “What Makes a Man) have composed new and exciting music.

Accompanying and, at times underscoring, the action, it’s played by a band including a euphonium and banjo.  It encourages audience members to stroll and promenade happily, most of the time, from the porches and streets that are this unique historical pageant’s stage.  Fiddle player Raha Javanfar (a 2012 recipient of the Siminovitch Protégé Prize) is terrifically enthusiastic, especially while playing her toe-tapping reels while Maurice Dean Witt’s harmonica playing alone can transport anyone through time and space.

Saidah and Brooke have written an emotional and inspiring collection of period ballads, work songs, blues and laments that complement traditional material such as gospel and spirituals.  When the cast members…especially Aisha Jarvish, Nicky Lawrence and Matthew Brown… unite their well-trained, sophisticated voices in glorious four-part harmony and their voices get louder and more powerful, it is goose-bump time!

That’s an incredible achievement in the humid, 30 degrees C. weather on the night I saw the show!

The new material is so authentic, so on-the-money that our great soul/blues/jazz singers Jackie Richardson – another national treasure – called everything about it  “Awesome!”  She said she could not tell the difference between the new and traditional songs.

“`The Postman’” is very important,” she commented, “and says what has to be said. “The music, the acting, how it was staged was great in every way.

“What I love about it is they did such a good job of what they wrote and especially the costumes and music, taking us back to what life was like back in the day.

“(`The Postman”) is important because there are so many untold stories about black Canadians and how Canada was built on the backs of black people like Albert Jackson.”

(It should be noted Saida Baba Talibah is the daughter of the great blues singer Salome Bey and the cast also features Aisha Jarvis, daughter of fabulous Dora-winning actor/singer Sterling Jarvis.  The future is in good hands!)

This has all come to pass because of David Ferry’s vision.  Indeed, he is a marvel.  I cannot think of another performing artist in North America, or elsewhere, for that matter, who has accomplished as much on stage and on screen… in so many ways… as he has internationally during his 40 plus year-long career, or who has given so much to audiences and communities everywhere.

For example, earlier this year the Newfoundland-born actor toured the world appearing in “The Last Confession,” Roger Crane’s speculative play about whether or not Pope John Paul I was murdered.  He also understudied the lead actor David Suchet, renowned for his television portrayal of Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot.

Yet, he still came back to Canada, as he always does, to share his gifts … so much knowledge, talent and experience … as an entertainer, educator, writer, mentor, advocate, lecturer, provocateur, activist and an incredibly gifted actor and director, especially with young and emerging artists.

This year alone, he received the Best Actor Toronto Theatre Critics’ Award for his searing performance in the powerful play “Blackbird,” which he also directed.

Then, he directed the intensely ruthless British play “Bull” to rave reviews.  C’mon - here’s a guy who just finished performing in some of the finest proscenium houses in the world and who then returns home to direct this play for Coal Mine theatre in a tiny performance space underneath a pizza shop on the Danforth!

For “The Postman,” Ferry added tactful diplomacy and military general strategist to his skill set.  Not only did he oversee fund-raising, he headed up talks with each householder owner to convince them to allow the cast to perform on their porches.  He persuaded the Canadian Union of Postal Workers to become supporters.

He also precisely blocked four different versions to accommodate the various locations in which it was to be performed including a sit-down, still production in a park to accommodate the physically challenged.

Intensity is a hallmark of David’s brave and courageous choices. How can one forget the 2009 Birdland Theatre production of Stephen Adly Giurgis’ serio-comic drama “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” he directed?  It featured 15 of Canada’s best actors.  It was performed in the Distillery’s District’s Fermenting Cellar to evoke the purgatory in which Christ’s betrayer is imprisoned awaiting trial as the play begins.

His production last March of Mike Barlett’s 2015 Olivier Award-winning “Bull” brought to mind Ferry’s harrowing performance imn 2010 at Buddies in Bad Times in Sarah Kane’s in-your-face play “Blasted.”  It’s a rare performer who has the vast range to perform a play dealing with an apocalyptic world of baby eating, eye gouging, rape of both sexes, then directing a play as life-affirming, joyous and uplifting as “The Postman.”

David also is fearless.  He loves to “go for it” as he showed this past February with the production of David Hare’s “Stuff Happens” he directed at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. The plot is about events leading up to the 2003 Iraq War.  It centres on George W. Bush and his aides.  Hare presents various viewpoints including arguments pro and con for attacking Iraq.  David actually connected with David Hare, thanks to connections he made on his “The Last Confession” tour.

Contrary to previous productions, David arranged-- in the spirit of agit-prop theatre-- to have projected on the post-show curtain, deliberately provocative quotes from current politicians…pulled from yesterday’s headlines… using similar language as Dubya and his staff did back then.

They included words from Prime Minister Stephen Harper and various cabinet ministers including foreign affairs honchos John Baird and Peter MacKay.  “They pressed similar fear buttons as the Bush administration did,” said David with a wicked grin, his light blue eyes flashing mischievously.

Beginning with the first preview, the audience shouted heated comments as they departed.  A few heated arguments broke out in the lobby.  “The shouts indicated,” David said, “they did not approve of this kind of manipulation and fear mongering.  “One person shouted out `Harper, tell the truth about that 10 billion dollar armored tank order!’”

“It had been a long time since I have been part of a production that engaged audiences in this way. Thanks to my incredible design team and the so, very so engaged actors for this production.”

Ferry takes another shot at our Prime Minister in “The Postman.”  In the penultimate scene, when Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald orders that Albert Jackson not be discriminated against and be allowed to carry out his work, he snaps at a dim, dithering, racist, argumentative aide he calls “Harper,” and then “S.H.”

David Ferry is also a rare breed.  I cannot think of anyone anywhere who has worked as closely as he has with James Reaney, one of our four or five greatest playwrights and poets, and one of America’s best, Pulitzer Prize winner Lanford Wilson.

In New York, at Greenwich Village’s off-Broadway Circle Repertory theatre in 1981, David created the role of the ghost of World War II soldier Timmy Talley in Lanford Wilson’s “A Tale Told.” It was the second play in the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights’ Talley trilogy. (The play was later revised and renamed “Talley & Son.” Other plays in the series were “Talley’s Folly” that starred Judd Hirsch and “Fifth of July” that originally starred an unknown William Hurt and Jeff Daniels. It later played on Broadway with Christopher Reeve in the lead role.)

No one else has done that.  Reaney, commonly regarded as one of Canada’s three or four greatest playwrights, who published Margaret Atwood’s early poems in his modest literary magazine, “Alphabet,” became David’s beloved and respected mentor.

It’s no wonder that in the five years David worked at George Brown College as a guest director, two of his most personally exciting productions … with some of the school’s most exciting grads … were James Reaney’s “The St. Nicholas Hotel – Part Two of The Donnelly Trilogy” and, one of his favorites, Lanford Wilson’s “Balm in Gilead.”

Playwright Wilson always has been a favorite of his, even as an actor when, in the play “Burn This” at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, Ferry played the role of Pale, which was created by John Malkovich in the Steppenwolf Theatre production of the play.

I was reminded of that a few weeks ago when I visited Steppenwolf, one of my favorite theatres on the planet, to see the first preview of its new hit play “Grand Concourse.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Aaron Carter, its director of new play development at a talk-back following the show.  I suggested Steppenwolf should pursue a twinning agreement with David Ferry and other Toronto theatres, especially Soulpepper, to share their wealth and talent.

I told Aaron about “The Postman” and how a similar production could easily be mounted along Clybourne Avenue near Steppenwolf’s ‘hood that gave its name to the play “Clybourne Park.”  That was Bruce Norris’ 2011 Pulitzer and Olivier and 2012 Tony Award-winner. It had its Chicago premiere at Steppenwolf in 2011.  (By the way, there is no Clybourne Park.)

Had David remained in New York, there is no question he would have received the same international film stardom achieved by such Steppenwolf founders as John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Joan Allen and Laurie Metcalfe.  He could have enjoyed the same directing acclaim there as founding member and Northwestern University professor and playwright Frank Galati.  He directed the world premiere of the musical “Ragtime” here in Toronto in 1996.

I recall meeting David when I was a student at the University of Western Ontario in London in the mid-1970s.  It was at the English department’s Drama Workshop.

Toronto’s NDWT Company, under the direction of Keith Turnbull, was rehearsing there its national tour of Professor Reaney’s now classic “The Donnelly Trilogy.”  (The Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia calls it “one of the nation’s most important dramas.”)

And, full disclosure, we’ve been friends ever since.  I can’t tell you what a privilege and pleasure it has been to see David’s work over the years and to see him develop into the incomparable artist he is today.  I try never to miss one of his productions as I know I will be thrilled, challenged, stimulated … sometimes grossed out… but never disappointed.

For me, seeing “The Postman,” from early rehearsals to a staged reading at St. Lawrence Hall and now twice at a dress rehearsal and first preview, was more than witnessing the development of a wonderful historical play about Toronto’s history.  It’s  continues to be a lovely, nostalgic walk down memory lane.

The chorus of inspired actors reading, the inventiveness, the imagery, the declarative soliloquies and, most importantly, the sense of child-like, inventive “play” that was at the heart of Reaney’s approach, all brought back so many happy memories, especially of the “Wacousta” drama workshops my classmates and I attended.

 

Tom, now Tomson Highway, was a student and participant who translated speeches into Cree.  Inspired by Reaney and his work… and by the plays of Michel Tremblay … Tomson went on to write the now classic “The Rez Sisters” and “Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.”  Today, it’s so great to see Reaney’s art and legacy living on through his mentee, David Ferry.

I especially loved the parties afterwards chez Reaney with his ebullient wife, poet Colleen Thibaudeau.  Reaney was a native of Stratford, so I asked him why the Festival … then under the direction of Robin Phillips … never staged any of his plays like, perhaps, “Listen to the Wind” or “The Killdeer.”  He replied:

“If Shakespeare brought them a new play, they’d kick him in the teeth!”

“The Postman’s” writing is so evocative of Reaney’s style.  Here’s a favorite of mine written in his mythopoeic (fictional mythology) dialogue (1971) from his “Sticks and Stones.” It’s titled “Jenny Donnelly’s dawn song at the wake of her murdered mother”:

“Jenny:

I help my mother cross the thorn apple fields.

We pay you toll with our thoughts and tears.

The Man Will:

Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua eis.

Jenny:

Cum sanctus tuis in aeternum, quia pius es

The Man Will:

For at dawn comes a sleigh

Jenny:

To bear you away

For awhile from us

As we mourn in the house

The last tollgate before harvest and heaven.”

Compare Reaney’s lyrical words with a favorite speech of mine from “The Postman,” Astrid’s speech, spoken by actress Claire Armstrong.  Astrid is a diabetic homeowner, a  friend of Albert’s to whom he delivers mail. It’s a note she’s left for him as she’s left for hospital:

“Dear Albert, no, my dearest Albert. I am a little worried about when I'm going to return, but return I shall. If only to see that wondrous smile of yours.

“I hope this doesn't astonish you or shame me. The apostle Paul spoke out at Antioch against Peter and Barnabas because Paul would break bread with Gentiles. He had no fear because truth was on his side. And he is my inspiration.

“If anyone has a problem with you breaking bread with my family then they can go to the devil. I have no idea if I will see you again, but if I do, let us break bread together, and please... call me Astrid.”

Also, compare Reaney’s evocative poetry with Albert Jackson’s opening speech from “The Postman”:

"Albert Jackson. That's me. I am a postman. This is my story…let you decide if it's a good one.

“This is 1918, Toronto the Good. Toronto the White. Toronto the Christian Irish, Scottish, English. This is happening right here in this neighborhood: Harbored, Major, Palmerston, Brunswick, Euclid, and Borden. Good solid White names. No “Albert Jackson Lane” then, I can assure you.

“These are the rivers I crossed every day. Downtown further, Queen and Broadview, country then — city now.

“There’s a sign on a bridge today says: `This River I Step In is Not the River I Stand In.’ I like that. I think that must descend from Heraclitus.

“That sign is me. This is my journey; this is the river I stand in. The porches I mount every day as I deliver the mail are my pulpits. My messages of hope, expectation, sadness, distress, love, and commerce are my Gospel. I am the messenger that connects the Stations of the Cross for everyone in my parish… the parish of the daily post. Come with me. Watch your steps.”

The Don River to which Jackson mythopoeically refers is a river of memory, unlike the river Lethe, a river of forgetfulness that is one of the five rivers of Hades in Greek mythology.

Albert Jackson is our benevolent Charon, unlike the mythological one that ferries the souls of the dead across the river Styx, to spend eternity mournfully, oblivious to the past.

Albert Jackson gently asks us to look how far we’ve come, to understand how we got to where we are today.

And the words of the beautifully sung finale that follows could apply just as easily to David Ferry as they do to Albert Jackson as David again takes us along on his wondrous, skilful, and magical walks that continue to inspire our hearts and imaginations.

Walk on, brother.

By Dennis Kucherawy

FINALE

Now is the time

to celebrate

All that you've done

Led us to be free

Now (or Here) is the place

For us to share

memories of

Your walk into time

Please let us show you

the way

Now let us sing

Today

Now is the time

for all to be free

Thank you my Friend

for all you've done

There will be now

a street in your name

Please let us show

you the way

Now let us sing

Today

Now is the time

for all to be free

Take us along

Your route for all to see

For information regarding ticket availability and performance date and times, please visit:

By Dennis Kucherawy

Last modified on Saturday, 18 July 2015 13:13
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