Jacob Sampson as John Solomon and Sophia Walker as Anna in The Bridge, a 2b theatre and Neptune Theatre co-production in association with Obsidian Theatre at Neptune to Feb. 10. (Stoo Metz)
Shauntay Grant’s The Bridge is a powerful, poetic, 75-minute drama about an embattled soul told with the heartache of gospel music and an all-Black cast.
In Grant’s rural Nova Scotian community people perceive life through the lens of religion and the play is steeped in religious music and biblical references, including the Song of Solomon.
Not surprising since Grant is an award-winning poet and former Halifax poet laureate, the style is less a linear narrative and more a rich, poetic structure with repeating themes, words and songs. Framing the drama is a phrase from an African-American spiritual: “There is a balm in Gilead/to heal the sin-sick soul.”
In 2b theatre’s premiere production on Neptune’s mainstage to Feb. 10, Nova Scotia’s Jacob Sampson is terrific as the central character John Solomon, who has been estranged from his preacher-brother, Reverend Eli (Jim Codrington) for 22 years.
John is an embittered drinker, a loving father, a man who can’t control his rage, who can’t forgive, who can’t crawl deep inside himself to see the truth.
The cast, seated in darkness behind a giant wooden bridge, is a Greek chorus sitting in judgment with whispering voices that swirl around John like ghosts.
The spirit of his deceased wife Anna — in a sensual, highly expressive performance by Sophia Walker – steps forward to try to lead him through his past to a present-day healing.
The incident driving the plot is the death of John’s mother and the return of his son Samuel (Daniel Ellis) for the funeral – a funeral John, himself, refuses to attend.
Grant balances her intensely biblical, tragic story with three marvellous, gossipy, church ladies who prowl around the cemetery criticizing the folk they once knew.
Charla Williams, Murleta Williams and Chiamaka G. Ugwe. (Stoo Metz)
They are also the choristers and come alive in magnificent, salty, comic performances by Halifax singer Charla Williams, Halifax singer and musical director Murleta Williams and Halifax-born actor/singer Chiamaka G. Ugwe.
2b theatre’s artistic director Anthony Black directs The Bridge to envelop the viewer in a sensory, spiritual experience of music, word images and a lovely, holy design while still highlighting the extremes of emotion and active suspense.
Apart from the bridge, itself, which is as metaphorical as it is utilitarian, Toronto-based designer Rachel Forbes suggests a country kitchen and a pulpit with a stagefront graveyard expressed in piles of dirt making one think immediately of “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
The church ladies’ costumes are in variations of browns and Leigh Ann Vardy’s subdued, golden, lighting design amid much darkness suits a play set in a real and a spirit world.
The Bridge is told in broad strokes of high emotion and a few plot details are confusing, though the emotional content is clear and deeply affecting.
Grant is 2b’s theatre playwright-in-residence and this is her first play. She writes in the program that she approaches language “with the sensibility of a poet concerned with voice and cadence, metaphor and symbolism, and – in works like The Bridge – achieving a communicable balance between the natural and the supernatural world.”