Sunday, January 31, 2016

Two Book Reviews: Gerald Hill, Miriam Korner and Alix Lwanga

“A Round for Fifty Years: A History of Regina’s Globe Theatre”
by Gerald Hill
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$34.95  ISBN 9-781550-506389
In his Foreword, commissioned writer Gerald Hill claims “no objectivity for [his version of the theatre’s history], no nose for the dirt (if any exists, other than bat or pigeon dung), no investigative-reporter zeal,” and affirms that what follows is his rendering of the story. To that I say: Hurray! Hill’s got a SK-sized mountain of excellent publications (mostly poetry) behind him, and the longtime professor at Regina’s Luther College also has personal ties to the Globe. I can’t name a more suitable writer to pen a close-up retrospective that celebrates the folks - on both sides of the Globe’s curtain - who’ve made Saskatchewan’s first professional theatre company such a long-standing success.

This book’s a classy package. The cover’s appropriately dramatic: a front-lit photo of the historic Globe theatre building contrasted against the night sky and skyscrapers. The generously-spaced text assures easy reading; the book’s saturated with photographs (mostly from performances); and it’s smartly organized into three Acts, with a comprehensive Appendices that includes selected show posters. Its presentation is coffee table-ish; you’d be proud to have this sitting out where friends could see it.  

Hill credits innovative English director\playwright Brian May for the Globe’s “in the round” performance style, which allows actors and audience to “[share] the same physical and psychological space”. (In short, the closer Joe and Susie theatre-goer get, the better their experience.) There are nods toward the SK Arts Board for early interest and investment, specifically through Drama Consultant Florence James, and theatre’s relevance is addressed: “ … the essential goodness of humans can be accessed and reinforced through theatre”.

If one were to make an analogy to fiction, the theatre company would be the protagonist in this story, and the setting would include the entire province of SK. Dynamos Ken and Sue Kramer founded the Globe in 1966 as a school touring company that performed interactive shows in gymnasiums around the province. It was extremely “grass roots,” with self-made costumes, props and sets that were “usually nothing more than six plywood rostrum blocks of various sizes.” The company’d set off in Kramers’ Vauxhall and a donated Ford van, plowing through prairie blizzards, and share their theatrical magic with thousands of SK youngsters. Actor Bill Hugli says that a good show was indicated by “wet spots on the floor – kids so caught up in the experience, they couldn’t hold it anymore”.

Financial crises, building moves and renos, major programming changes, fresh visions, fun anecdotes (ie: bats), and a large cast of players – from 15-year Playwright-in-Residence Rex Deverell to successive Artistic Directors Susan Ferley and Ruth Smillie – make this a stimulating read.

In Act 3, Hill delivers a nearly day-by-day account of the work required to mount a huge production (Mary Poppins), and for me, realizing what everyone from wardrobe people to musicians went through over one frantic preparatory three-week period was especially eye-opening. To the Globe’s many committed characters - and the collaborators in this wide-ranging and splendidly-written book - a standing ovation, of course.    




“L’il Shadd: A Story of Ujima”
by Miriam Körner and Alix Lwanga, illustrated by Miriam Körner
Published by Your Nickel’s Worth Publishing
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$29.95  ISBN 978-1-927756-48-5

Saskatchewan’s history is so multi-culturally rich that there are, admittedly, elements of it that I’ve scarcely even considered. Take, for example, the first African-Canadian pioneers, including the trail-blazing Dr. Alfred Schmitz Shadd (d.1915), for whom two Melfort streets and a northern Saskatchewan lake are named. Dr. Shadd shared an affinity with First Nations’ folks, “due to the similarity of their experiences with colonization and racism,” and the Saskatchewan African Canadian Heritage Museum – with the assistance of other funders and sponsors - has brought just one of Shadd’s success stories to light in the delightfully-illustrated children’s book, L’il Shadd: A Story of Ujima.

The title character, L’il Shadd, represents Garrison Shadd, the real-life son of the good Dr. Shadd, who’s also recognized for his work as a politician, teacher, farmer, journalist and friend. Garrison was actually five years old when his pioneering father died, so the story itself is slightly fictionalized. The plot concerns the child accompanying his father (via horse-drawn wagon) to tend to the baby girl of a local First Nations’ family who lives in a tipi near Stoney Creek. This medical emergency coincides with L’il Shadd’s birthday, and the boy is remiss that it will interfere with his party. His father explains that he must treat the infant girl, as he is the only one who is able to, and the African philosophy of Ujima (a Swahili word that refers to “Shared work and responsibility,” and the idea that “our brothers and sisters concerns are out concerns”) is referred to.

There are crossovers with real life here. Garrison Shadd also had a baby sister, and when the sick child in the story is healed, her father, Nīkānisiw (Cree for “He is foremost, he leads”) plays a drum not unlike Dr. Shadd’s African drum, and thanks the doctor in Cree and English. Three of Nīkānisiw’s children were actually treated by Dr. Shadd in the 1890s – a fact derived from Melfort-area settler Reginald Beatty’s diary.

This uplifting and historically-relevant story celebrates family, community, and culture, and illustrates how even children are able to grasp the selfless concept of Ujima, which is one of seven important Kwanzaa (an African holiday) values.        
Personally, I can’t think of a better way to teach history and get a positive message across than by presenting it in a full-colour picture book. Körner’s culturally-sensitive illustrations spread right across the page, and this “full bleed” style helps keep one sealed under the story’s spell. I appreciated the suggestion of floral bead work on Nīkānisiw’s vest, and the baby’s homemade rattle. Even more so, I celebrate the mutual trust and respect the characters display for each other, and for each other’s cultures.

This Special Edition legacy project is beautifully rendered, and I hope it is widely read. Teachers may wish to consider sharing L’il Shadd: A Story of Ujima during their schools’ multicultural celebrations, and to make it extra inviting, a teachers’ guide is available at Congratulations to all involved in this fine publication. And tēniki\thanks YNWP!

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