Thank goodness for Lisa Codrington. Her gutsy new play, “The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God,” does an impressive thing at the Shaw Festival’s Court House Theatre.
Her one-act play, which runs as part of the festival’s Lunchtime series, uses a George Bernard Shaw novella to lovingly criticize his approach to the Black Girl’s story, while using as a springboard to insert her own views on the character with whom she more obviously identifies.
She does this stylishly, with humor and humility, and plenty of commentary — just as Shaw would have done it. He would surely enjoy this clever adaptation, embarrassing warts and all. And, in fact, he does.
Codrington includes Shaw in the prologue and throughout the show, existing as a wink-nod to her own concept: what if the story of the black girl were written by a black girl (or woman)? How might that differ from a white man’s estimation of her character? Must writers write only what they know, taking the popular line of advice so literally? Shaw shows up to tell us exactly what he thinks, and then some.
Codrington’s experiment is successful off the bat. By making this a conversation about writing this play, it exists alongside and within the play’s story about existence and purpose. In half the length of a typical play, Codrington introduces two stories simultaneously, while being lighthearted and brief. It’s quite a crafty deployment and it mostly succeeds; a few touch-ups here and there would tighten this up quite well.
The story follows a black girl named Black Girl from “the darkest Africa” who is challenged by an exhausted, departing white missionary named White Missionary. They bicker about Black Girl’s desire to question what the missionaries have shared (and withheld): who, why, where, when and how is God? She’s never satisfied, and won’t take no for an answer. She doesn’t take yes for an answer, either. Black Girl is a true philosopher in search of higher meaning, but is blind to the journey required. It’s as if she hasn’t learned how to experience these lessons firsthand. She just wants to learn about them.
Her need for knowledge is sincere. The girl wants to learn. You have to give her that.
Along the way she meets characters from The Bible and pokes plenty of holes in their stories, theories and ideas. Their annoyance is understandable, but they fight just as much with each other, proving her doubts of their logic or perfection. Still, she doesn’t listen well. She asks for the sake of asking, they insist. She asks for the sake of knowledge, she says. Such is the rhetorical life.
As a character study, it’s quite smart. As a play, it’s spread a little thin. This is the play’s only tempo, and even in a short hour, it starts to grate. It needs more contrast, a few more beats of silence. Questions are good, but listening is better.
Director Ravi Jain gets great material from his comically gifted cast, especially Tara Rosling as the exhausted (and false?) White Missionary and later, a contentious mathematician on colonial expedition in Black Girl’s backyard. Rosling is a tremendous physical comedian in both roles, putting her bobbing wig to ingenious use.
Natasha Mumba brings honest determination to Black Girl. Mumba could exhibit a few more levels for contrast, but she’s got all the energy her role calls for. There’s a juvenile quality to her incessant questioning that’s appropriate and familiar; think of a precious, precious, pernicious young student, getting on your nerves by way of demanding education. A fine problem to have.
As George Bernard Shaw and other roles, Guy Bannerman brings the festival’s namesake to life. Turns out he’s just as annoying — hocker! But he’s a wise and careful wordsmith, too. That much we knew. Mumba and Bannerman have the best interactions, volleying literary criticisms at each other about the show that they’re currently performing in and that we’re watching. Mega meta.
I left the theater ready for lunch but hungry for more Lisa Codrington. What other Shaw themes could she subvert for our afternoon pleasure? What else does Black Girl want to know about the modern world? And what would Shaw have to say about it?
3 stars (out of 4)
“The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God” runs through Sept. 11 in repertory at Court House Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Tickets are $35. Visit shawfest.org or call (800) 511-SHAW.