In his Broken Chord review, SHIFTER’s Kevin Bourne says the play evokes feelings of sadness at times, but is a tremendous source of pride
Hundreds gathered tonight at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts for the opening night of Broken Chord, the critically acclaimed work from dancer, choreographer, and director Gregory Maqoma.
Set in the 1890’s, Broken Chord is based on the true story of The African Native Choir during their U.S. and UK tour. The young African singers from the Eastern Cape are looking to raise funds for a school in Kimberley, South Africa, but are met with racism and prejudice in England. While not an exact depiction of actual events, the play explores colonization and the pressures to be civilized, educated, and obedient―a story which still rings true today.
The production is layered with juxtapositions and contrasts throughout as cultures clash. It is also layered with symbolism, for instance with the background and foreground divided by a semi-circular riser representing hierarchy with white women on the lower risers ascending to white men almost sitting high on their thrones. The all-white choir even appear to be enjoying the rhythm created by the Black ensemble despite rejecting them.
Broken Chord evokes feelings of sadness at times, and joy and pride at other times. Chants of “Go home”, “Coon”, “Denied”, and “You are not like us” are contrasted with the beauty of traditional African singing. The two sides―the colonizer and the colonized―appear to be in a battle, which is at times exhausting to watch, mirroring the exhaustion which sometimes come with the Black experience.
The story is told mostly through sound, song and movement. The Black ensemble use dance and prayer to find hope and freedom in the midst of rejection and pressure to conform. Under the direction of composer and music director Thuthuka Sibisi, the African harmonies are simply beautiful, which help to convey the emotion of the story, whether joy, sadness or strength. Meanwhile, the accompanying choir deliver powerful and booming vocal performances in their own right.
The themes explored in Broken Chord will be familiar to Black audiences , including racism, displacement, and assimilation, and perhaps slightly jarring and saddening, while being challenging and eye-opening for non-Black audiences.
Although there’s no real happy ending to the story with the lead actress conceding “They shall not change”, Broken Chord is a tremendous source of pride for Black viewers and a call home to those of us disconnected from our African roots.