I’d never been to a funeral until I went to see Expect Theatre’s production of AWAKE. Premiering as part of this summer’s Fringe Festival in Toronto, the play – described as a “multimedia experience” – was set in the Walmer Baptist Church, where audiences sat in pews facing a closed casket. Jarring, yes, but for a production that aims to examine the lives affected by gang violence in the “at-risk” neighbourhood of Jamestown-Rexdale, the setting made perfect sense.
AWAKE is based on the experiences of residents of the West Toronto community. An interview with Nadia Beckles, in particular, resonated with directors Laura Mullin and Chris Tolley, who based AWAKE loosely around the mother. Nadia lost her son Amon to gang violence in 2005 when he was shot six times in the chest upon entering a church for a friend’s funeral service. The circumstances of his death shook all of Toronto, where most people couldn’t believe that what happened could transpire in a church.
The production takes us back to this sombre setting. The audience is told they’re at a funeral for young men whose lives are taken by gang violence. There are nine cast members in total, each embodying a particular character and story, portions of which they reveal over the course of AWAKE. One actress tells the story of her deceased son embodies Nadia Beckles’ experience, while another actor plays the role of a police officer coming to terms with his role in the troubled neighbourhood. Other characters include a youth worker, high school student and reverend, all who contribute various scenes that illuminate the issues plaguing Jamestown-Rexdale.
Although the play provides audiences with nuanced characters that we become invested in over time, the execution of their stories is confusing. Just when you become interested in one character, the play quickly switches to another. The constant shuffling back and forth presents a disjointed experience and interrupts the flow of their stories.
But what AWAKE looks to explain, or at the very least expose, it does exceedingly well.
“All we had was empty time,” explains one of the Jamestown characters. “And empty time makes us do crime.” Indeed, in areas like Jamestown-Rexdale, children of low-income families (where working parents can’t afford to be home when they return from school) are often faced with long periods of time when the company of gangs becomes appealing. Others are drawn to the underground economy where money can be made much quicker than through a legitimate job. As another character adds, “When you’re growing up in a war zone, you’re going to grow up to be a soldier.”
It’s the stories of those soldiers who don’t make it that AWAKE brings to light. Particularly, the stories of their friends and families who are left behind. Characters playing mothers of murdered men explain that they stopped being themselves the moment their sons died, and they can never really look at other community members the same way again.
The Fringe Festival has a history of featuring stage productions that raise awareness about social issues, but Expect’s production of Awake goes a step further in presenting a site-specific play that unfailingly presents all dimensions of gang violence and its ability to transform a neighbourhood and its residents.