Review by Felix von Geyer
Theatre-goers, culture vultures, rap lovers and general Mile-Enders should not miss seeing Omari Newton’s compelling play The Lamentable Tragedy of Sal Capone at Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop as it reaches the crescendo of its final few performances before it later travels to Vancouver.
The play is a triumph of casting diverse characters displaced by and vulnerable to society’s perceptions and prejudices against a background of hip hop and rap culture. Inspired by the earlier social consciousness hip hop culture of Public Enemy before it became commercialized and a groomed-for- profit industry, Newton throws an almost no-hope scenario of a First Nations transvestite prostitute who acts as the moral conscience and testimony to the inner fears, hidden desires, brutality and human impotence of everything she surveys as the play’s commentator. “The streets call me Mama,” says Shaneney, provocatively played by Billy Merasty, himself a First Nations Cree from Manitoba.
As Sal Capone looks to launch his group’s album, their friend and band member Sammy is shot by the police. Guilt and recrimination shadows over Sal and his fellow rapper Jewel, herself Filipino, as to who was to blame while manager/promoter Chase, a white Sicilian, is less interested in the soul of hip hop and rallying the crowd’s social conscience against the police than he is in making money.
Tension between all members of the cast ensues and outside of the sense of oppressive fatalism and destiny, detectable traces of Christopher Marlowe’s the Tragical History of Dr Faustus emerge through the Mephistophelian concept of black and white, good and bad, where the characters themselves are as much determined by the rap culture to which they are trying to identify as they start to think in terms of “nigger” and “fuck the cops” as they are determined by their perceptions of the grimness of their social reality. The “nigger” irony is not lost in Newton’s script that the cast comprise First Nations, white, Filipino and black actors.
Only Sal Capone’s younger sister breaks the mould of the wannabe hood culture and identity; correcting people’s grammar, trying to return her brother from rap to poetry, but here the play directed by Diane Roberts finishes with a spine-tingling double-edged conclusion that at once pivots on the themes of fate and determinism; hope and despair.
Fine, gritty acting knits the play together. Sal Capone, played by Tristan D. Lalla particularly shines as he moves between the duality of his own character’s convictions, delivering a notable improvised rap towards the play’s end. Letitia Brookes as his sister Naomi brings freshness and humour as she remains unimpressed by her brother’s hip hop world while Kim Villagante’s Jewel delivers a fine sense of confused identity and human purpose through her acting and lyrical rapping. Jordan Waunch’s Chase offers an intriguing view of the awkwardness of the outsider as insider.
Troy Slocum delivers crystal sound design and effects while Sarah Hall-K’s costumes bring authenticity to Ana Cappelluto’s set and lighting and Candelario Andrade’s final video design is memorable.
Don’t miss this refreshingly thought-provoking production.