The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God
Court House Theatre - Niagara-on-the-Lake
by Mike Keenan
Natasha Mumba as Black Girl in The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God. Photo by David Cooper
Does the deity appear in darker shades?
When it appeared that I had achieved the highest marks in grade 8 at Toronto's St. Paul's Catholic School, I was summoned by Father Ramsburger, the parish priest, and with little explanation, he gave me a copy of the Douay-Rheims Bible. I'm not sure if it was supposed to be an aid in my search for God, but over the years, I have witnessed other fascinating searches for The Almighty in literature. Examples abound. The major theme in W.O. Mitchell's classic, Who Has Seen the Wind? involves the child-hero Brian and his search for God and the holy spirit. More recently, Yann Martel's wonderful Life of Pi is a Canadian fantasy adventure in which the protagonist, Piscine Molitor (aka Pi) Patel, an Indian boy from Pondicherry, explores issues of spirituality from an early age.
And today in the crowded Shaw Festival Court House Theatre in Niagara on the Lake, I watch Lisa Codrington's hilarious take on finding God with her brilliant adaptation - The Adventures Of The Black Girl In Her Search For God.
Based upon a Shaw short story written while in Africa. Codrington's heroine, Natasha Mumba (Black Girl), before the play starts, gets into a heated argument with Guy Bannerman as Shaw who rants about his preface not being used and the fact that his long piece has been drastically altered in what he terms a "massacre." The play ends in the same fashion after Codrington explains to him that they have less than an hour to deal with a long list of titanic items that includes slavery, colonialism, Bible, God, assimilation, feminism, voice appropriation and racism for a lunchtime crowd - and that it's supposed to be a comedy!
Director Ravi Jain employs a clever set designed by Camellia Koo, the actors performing atop a bible, the pages exhorting Mumba to "Seek and you shall find me" - after she has thoroughly demoralized Tara Rosling (the White Missionary) who resorts to repeated slugs from a handy flask under her habit, being questioned ad nauseum by Mumba such that she exclaims that at this rate, they will never get out of Genesis.
Mumba then encounters an Eden-like talking snake, this time a more appropriate Black Mamba (Kiera Sangster) and a humorous series of gods that include Bannerman again (Lord of Hosts), Graeme Somerville (The Almighty) and biblical characters such as Jonathan Tan (The Conjuror) being painted by Italian artist Somerville as Christ on the cross.
Ben Sanders is both King Solomon who, despite hundreds of wives and concubines, makes a move on Mumba and Micah the Morasthite, the prototypical desert wanderer-theological-soothsayer.
Along for the existential ride as atheistic scientists are Rosling again (Mathematician), Sanders (Physicist) and a large sized André Sills (Black Bearer) who carries the scientists' bags and amongst these three in the "Caravan of the Curious," tells it like it is in historical Africa - that the white man's lethal legacy is more associated with the National Rifle Association than any good or religion, forcing one to conclude that yes, indeed, the U.S. itself has not really evolved much since the infamous days of slavery.
Artistic Director, Jackie Maxwell characterizes the offering as, "Continuing our series of Shaw 'remixes', this adaptation of Shaw's controversial 1932 novella by the talented Lisa Codrington - a young black female writer - is a provocation in and of itself. Lisa's take-no-prisoners approach matches Shaw's anarchic spirit and with the collaboration of dynamic director Ravi Jain, should take the piece to a new outrageous high!"
Bannerman, Somerville and Sanders are hilarious as Old Testament symbols of old-fashioned omnipotence and Bannerman, again as Shaw, captures the playwright's stormy invective so well that he might make for a suitable permanent prologue preceding every Shaw play in the future. Jain's clever production, makes one hope for more of his presence in years to come.
The action is fast and furious. The acting is superb. The set wonderful. The direction bang on. And the audience arose as one with a standing ovation. I would gladly return and watch this play again tomorrow! It puts a smile on your face, if not forces one to continue a "seek and you shall find me" pas de deux.
The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God runs at the Shaw's Court House Theatre until Sept. 11 (
Again, the program notes, as always, lead to enrichment before seeing the play.
Director's Notes by Ravi Jain
"When the Missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said 'Let us pray.' We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land."
Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu
The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God was a novella Shaw wrote in 1932.
In it, he imagined a young Black girl roaming the "darkest of Africa" in search of God. On
her adventures she meets a host of wacky characters from a talking snake, to obscure religious figures, to Jesus and Muhammad. It's a quirky story that Shaw created to express his ideas about religion and the Bible; he never intended for it to be a play.
In September 1934, a Black female writer from Ghana named Mabel Dove-Danquah published her playful reply to Shaw's text entitled The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her
Search for Mr Shaw. She was inspired by Shaw's short story and desperately wanted to meet
him in order to engage in a debate about religion and the church. She, of course, had issues with how Shaw represented the "Black African girl" and had thoughts of her own about missionaries in Africa. Her version of the story playfully engaged with Shaw's in a way that admired and challenged ideas in his story. Her work, though not read by many, was the beginning of a dialogue; a response from another perspective, from someone who had life experiences which differed from the original author.
Fast forward to 2016, Lisa Codrington has re-imagined, or rather responded to, this story from yet another lens. One that engages with Shaw's original thesis and goes further, looking not only at religion, but colonization, racism and the theatre itself. It's a version I think both Shaw and Mabel would have been delighted to see. It is funny, subversive and en
gages with the immediate politics of our time. Most importantly, it shows us this story through a new set of eyes. It is a re-appropriation of an appropriated voice and it has been done appropriately.
Lisa Codrington's The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God is the first time the Shaw Festival has presented a new play written by a Black Female Canadian playwright. A stunning fact which should be celebrated and abhorred. For a long time, we have been listening to one side of the story. Today, this play provides an "other" side, irreverently bringing Shaw's work into the 21st century by ripping the pages of our colonial legacy in a necessary and immediate way.
Fasten your seatbelts.
From Shaw's Preface to The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God
I was inspired to write this tale when I was held up in Knysna for five weeks in the African summer and English winter of 1932. My intention was to write a play in the ordinary course of my business as a playwright but I found myself writing the story of the black girl instead. And now, the story being written, I proceed to speculate on what it means, though I cannot too often repeat that I am as liable as anyone else to err in my interpretation, and that pioneer writers, like other pioneers, often mistake their destination as Columbus did. That is how they sometimes run away in pious horror from the conclusions to which their revelations manifestly lead. I hold, as firmly as St Thomas Aquinas, that all truths, ancient or modern, are divinely inspired; but I know by observation and introspection that the instrument on which the inspiring force plays may be a very faulty one, and may even end, like Bunyan in The Holy War, by making the most ridiculous nonsense of his message.
However, here is my own account of the matter for what it is worth.
It is often said, by the heedless, that we are a conservative species, impervious to new ideas. I have not found it so. I am often appalled at the avidity and credulity with which new ideas are snatched at and adopted without a scrap of sound evidence. People will believe anything that amuses them, gratifies them, or promises them some sort of profit. I console myself, as Stuart Mill did, with the notion that in time the silly ideas will lose their charm and drop out of fashion and out of existence; that the false promises, when broken, will pass through cynical derision into oblivion; and that after this sifting process the sound ideas, being indestructible (for even if suppressed or forgotten they are rediscovered again and again) will survive and be added to the body of ascertained knowledge we call Science. In this way we acquire a well-tested stock of ideas to furnish our minds, such furnishing being education proper as distinguished from the pseudo-education of the schools and universities.
Unfortunately there is a snag in this simple scheme. It forgets the prudent old precept, "Don't throw out your dirty water until you get in your clean" which is the very devil unless completed by "this also I say unto you, that when you get your fresh water you must throw out the dirty, and be particularly careful not to let the two get mixed."