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Out of Town

The First Stone Powerfully Starts it All at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre



On a large canvas, centered around a thatched roof circle, a company of actors delivers a communal song and dance of unity and collectivity, inviting us into their circle of warmth, power, and humanity. It’s a strongly formulated beginning, filled to the brim with ambition and meaning, structured around an idea of history and society. It’s all stated strongly before the crew splinter off to form chalk poetry with strong visuals of circles and symbols representing all that is dear to this village. These provocative and emotional first images of The First Stone fill the wide open stage of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre with energy, planting the familial struggle firmly in the earth and soul of this small village town somewhere in Uganda. Approaching first, on the great fractured divide, is the omnipresent Ancestor, played with organic force by Tsholo Khalema (Vancouver Playhouse’s The Drowsy Chaperone), who pulls us into their communal hands, guiding us towards this big themed new play by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard (Cake; Sound of the Beast), with a verbalized regret of throwing the titular first stone. Spinning a question forward that we can’t quite understand yet.

Makambe K. Simamba and Dorothy A. Atabong in Buddies in Bad Times Theatre‘s The First Stone. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I can’t say that I was completely clear about what he was referring to, nor what this first act of violence was or what it represented or began, but the emotional meaning comes naturally over time, as playwright St. Bernard paints out the play’s ideals, both big and small, first focusing its gaze down inward on a small village community. It is there was we first are given an edge into the way of life that is being disrupted by a decades-long war that pulls fathers away from families, and where young innocent children are being abducted and forcibly trained to be brutal soldiers in a war that they can’t possibly understand.

It’s a harrowing journey, but we are assisted along the path by the titles and scenarios that are projected on the back wall, thanks to the projection design by Cameron Davis (Studio 180’s Oslo). Davis’s projections pinpoint our thoughts by showing pieces of the dialogue puzzle in order to highlight significant themes and ideas. It works for the most part, but sometimes the formula distracts us from the emotional truth at the center. But when it works, it leads us to the play’s inner fire and simultaneously opens up the intellectual canvas to a grander more epic scale. It’s not just inside this small bubble, but through this unique lens, the play helps explore the global themes of war, justice, interdependence, the use of innocent children as forced warriors, and the difficult road to thoughtful reconciliation that must follow within these torn-apart communities once their children return.

Forgiveness is at the heart of The First Stone; forgiveness for their crimes and their restructuring, and as directed by Yvette Nolan (Gwaandak Theatre’s Map Of The Land, Map Of The Stars), the tense global and more distinct internal themes reverberate from within. They are galvanized by grand movements and gestures that fundamentally impact our sense of dread and connection, even when, unfortunately, the background movements of the large cast sometimes are unneeded and distracting. Stillness might have been a better choice for our focus. But the play’s heart and focus live and breathe in the earlier day-to-day drudgery of an unnamed family living without a father figure in this small village in Uganda with war marching towards them.

The mother, played with a solid connection to the earth she farms by Dorothy Atabong (Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale“), tries her best to hold the chalk-circled home together through historical movement, tradition, care, and worry. She has to tend to an infant that is wrapped close up to her body, as the seeds are planted in the land that surrounds them. The two more grown children, who bicker and fight in the loving way most siblings do, find solace in her visual embrace, and a sense of community within the town. The ‘Girl’, played solidly by Makambe K. Simamba (Sage Theatre’s Bea), and the ‘Boy’, played dutifully but sometimes overly exaggerated in style by daniel jelani ellis (Tarragon’s The Circle), live out their existence with curiosity and energy, gathering water together from the wells while stepping over a crack that never really seems to have a deeper meaning (other than one terrifically harrowing baby moment later in the play). The ‘Boy’ tags along, exuding the immature posturing of the “man of the house” now that father is away at war. ellis overwhelms the dialogue and the posturing while never really expanding outward from where he began. The ‘Boy’ says he’s there to watch over and protect his younger sister, but his ambivalence to her work gives away his secret flirtatious true agenda; to see a local girl named Uma, played dynamically by Nawa Nicole Simon (Tarragon/TFF’s The Mating Game) that he dotes upon. “Uma is strong,” we are told, but the journey that awaits Simon’s Uma is a devastating one, much like every young person on that stage, but for the time being, their flirtations lay a great foundation for what is to come.

Ucha Ama in Buddies in Bad Times Theatre‘s The First Stone. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Yet the air isn’t idyllic for very long, obviously, even if the youthful antics give an inaccurate casual edge to a story that is dynamically shifting under their feet. Their mother and her sister, Auntie, played beautifully by Uche Ame (Obsidian’s 21 Black Futures), see the rumbles that surround them. The two are very concerned about the young children who are systematically disappearing from their village, and look at the ‘Boy’ and the ‘Girl’ with increasing anxiety. They peer at their father, Granddad, portrayed awkwardly and unconvincingly by Michael-Lamont Lytle (Obsidian/Canadian Stage’s Dixon Road), with suspicion as they believe he might be the one responsible for the disappearances. Yet the two never find the courage to confront their Granddad in any significant way. Perhaps it’s because of cultural norms and gender/status inequality, but for that matter, we are left to make up our own minds. Yet their worry and fear exist in the fiber of their very being and are palpable in both Atabong and Ame’s engaging portrayal of the two sisters. They don’t quite seem to be born from the same earth, but their connection registers, alongside the mistrust and fear that revolve around Lytile’s Granddad. The violence within him that we are told is there never really vibrates out from Lytile’s performance, and if there is one flaw that sets The First Stone off balance, this is it.

When both the ‘Boy’ and then the ‘Girl’ are abducted and brutally forced to become savage warriors for a cause that never seems clear by Granddad, the play’s energy noticeably shifts towards the violence that symbolically escalates as the production as a whole ignites with a harrowing discomfort that sits solidly in our gut. Simamba and Ellis both elicit the youthful energy of siblings without a care in the world, but when we watch the restructured brother and sister swing their branch-like machetes in the background, as Granddad tortures the others into obedience, we can sense that these kids are already forever changed, and particularly in the stunning performance of Simamba, the violence is now embedded in their very fabric. To untangle it from their bodies and in the way their communities now look at them, knowing the violence they enacted as soldiers, this is going to be a hard act of reconciliation and a hard road’s journey to get to a place of ultimate acceptance and a return into the folds of the community.

On a stage designed with integrity by Jackie Chau (Factory’s Wildfire), with vibrant costumes by Des’ree Gray (Theatre Passe Muraille’s Designing the Revolution), simple lighting by Michelle Ramsay (New Harlem’s The Hours that Remain), and a solid sound design by Maddie Bautista (Stratford’s I Am William), The First Stone unpacks one family’s effort to reunite after being torn apart. It focuses on the struggle before, during, and after the two young children are captured by their Granddad and forced most horrifically and violently into an army. The piece dutifully unpacks the trauma, delving into the harrowing exploitation of children who are abducted and turned maliciously into soldiers, and expands the visceral feelings of both the village’s sense of tradition and harmony. The play speaks volumes in whispers and movement across that great divide even when the overall use of the large cast is at points somewhat messy and distracting. But thanks to the divine choreography of Indrit Kasapi (lemonTree creations’ MSM[men seeking men]) with the assistance of associate choreographer Pulga Muchochoma (Theatre Passe Muraille’s Cake), the play’s themes hit true and uncomfortably hard.

Together the choreographers utilize the cast’s communal body as the physical formulations of that training as well as the historical connections to one another through dance and movement. When the cast unites in that movement, the play, and its imagery fly forward and it hits hard, marrying text with movement and song to tell a story that looks at and beyond the trauma of generational violence, and into a historical racial reckoning. The play paints well the inner horizons with specifics, particularly with this family, but as we look inward, finding our way through the historical violence of our own nation and its horrific treatment of the Indigenous, the clues and parallels struggle a bit harder to pose the most intriguing of questions, specifically around what happens after the children leave the child army and return to their village, and how does that reflect on the treatment of the Indigenous children pulled from their own families and forced into the brutal and deadly world of the Residential School system.

The First Stone, drawing on several intense interviews with Acholi families whose children were abducted during the civil conflict in Uganda, does find its quick and quiet footing. The scope of the story is large, but in this play, part of 54ology, a larger project of plays written by St. Bernard and inspired by each of the African countries, this epic and powerful exploration succeeds in giving us an experience that echoes out wide and strong. “Were they ever mine?” their mother asks, as our hearts collectively break. “Only to care for,” Auntie replies, “they will be killers now.” The question that remains is will their village pull them back into their embrace, and forgive the world for what has been brought down on them. Reconciliation is the hard road that follows.

Bad Times Theatre‘s The First Stone.
written by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard
directed by Yvette Nolan
photo of Daniel Jelani Ellis and Makambe K. Simamba by Dylan Mitro
styling by Cat Calica, hair and makeup by Robert Weir
graphic design by Awake Studio

This New Harlem Productions and Great Canadian Theatre Company production of The First Stone had its world premiere in downtown Toronto at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander) featuring the following cast members: Uche Ama, Dorothy Atabong, Courage Bacchus Taija Shonée Chung, Tavaree Daniel-Simms, daniel jelani ellis, Tsholo Khalema, Michael-Lamont Lytle, Megan Legesse, Gloria Mampuya, Willow Martin, Kendelle Parks, Makambe K Simamba, Nawa Nicole Simon, and Paul Smith. The First Stone began performances on October 6, and was extended to October 23, before relocating to Ottawa for an April presentation. This ambitious new project has been supported through the NAC’s National Creation Fund.

Established in 1979, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre is Toronto’s leading destination for artistically rigorous, alternative theatre and a world leader in developing queer voices and stories for the stage. Over the course of its history, it has evolved into the largest facility-based queer theatre company in the world and has made an unparalleled contribution to the recognition and acceptance of queer lives in Canada.

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My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to


The Olivier Awards Return



Celebrate the very best in British theatre in a star-studded evening as the Olivier Awards return to the Royal Albert Hall on April 2nd.

Three-time Olivier Award nominee & Primetime Emmy winner, Hannah Waddingham will be hosting the awards for the first time.

The event will feature performances from all of the Best New Musical nominees, including The Band’s Visit, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, Sylvia and Tammy Faye. Also performing will be Oklahoma! and Sister Act, both nominated for the Best Musical Revival award, as well as Disney’s Newsies, which has been nominated for Matt Cole’s choreography.

The multi-Olivier Award winner The Book of Mormon, will be performing to mark its ten-year anniversary in the West End. Additionally, special award winner Arlene Philips will be honored with a tribute from the cast of Grease.

The ceremony will be broadcast live on Magic Radio from 6pm with Ruthie Henshall and Alice Arnold hosting.

The highlights program will also be aired on ITV1 and ITVX at 10:15 pm in the UK and via Official London Theatre’s YouTube channel elsewhere.

And the nominees are:

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Out of Town

The Unpacking of the First Métis Man of Odesa, An Interview




Punctuate! Theatre is unpacking a love story. A love story about a couple. A love story about Ukraine. And a love story against an unbelievably complicated backdrop. Starting at The Theatre Centre in Toronto, the company is ushering forth the world premiere of First Métis Man of Odesa before it spins itself out on stages across Canada. Spanning continents and set against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Métis playwright and Punctuate! Artistic Director, Matthew MacKenzie (Dora Award-winning playwright for Bears, After the Fire, The Particulars) joins forces with his wife, the award-winning Ukrainian actress Mariya Khomutova (Odesa Film Festival Grand Prix – The Golden Duke award-winner NONNATwo People), to tell the story of their COVID courtship and share an intimate perspective on the personal impacts of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Matthew MacKenzie and Mariya Khomutova.

Drawn from their real-life love story, a story that is ultimately still unfolding to this very day, First Métis Man of Odesa unpacks the journey of Matt and Masha’s love that spans continents where distance and conflicts can’t tame their passionate connection. After meeting on a theatre research trip in Kyiv, a spark is struck, and a romance between a Métis Playwright and a Ukrainian artist is ignited, taking them from the beaches of the Black Sea to the banks of the North Saskatchewan River, within the onset of a global pandemic, the eruption of a brutal war, but also the many joyous moments that this union begets, including marriage and the birth of their son.

During the height of the lockdown in 2021, an initial version of this piece was presented as a radio play at Factory Theatre, written by MacKenzie and directed by Nina Lee Aquino. This March, First Métis Man of Odesa, as directed by Lianna Makuch (Pyretic Productions/Punctuate!’s Barvinok), makes its stage debut, offering a compelling continuation of the initial story told in that first radio play. The couple, Matthew MacKenzie and his wife, Mariya Khomutova, sat down with Frontmezzjunkies and thankfully answered a few questions about their incredible journey from that first love-struck connection to its World Premiere at The Theatre Centre in Toronto.

Tell me, how you decided to embark on telling your own story and what the beginning of this creative process looked like for you two?

Initially, Matt wrote an audio play for Factory Theatre about our romance, then getting married and having their son during the pandemic.  The plan had been to expand the piece for the stage, a plan that took on much urgency after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Both the pandemic and war have a deeply dehumanizing effect, so our hope in telling our love story is to share the human side of these major world events; a human side that headlines and news clips can’t fully capture.

What aspect of your character, or your involvement with/creation of this play resonates the most powerfully inside you?

For both of us, the opportunity to share all the joy, humour, anger, and frustration we’ve experienced in the past few years is a really therapeutic process.  Many of our friends and family only know snippets of what we’ve been through, so the opportunity to tell our story across the country is one we are deeply grateful for.

The phrase “you don’t know what someone is carrying with them” has really hit home over the past couple of years, as we have had to contend with some pretty epic challenges as a couple and as individuals.

Tell me a bit about what it is like to bring your character to the stage? What does mean to you to be telling this story?

We play ourselves in the play, but we very much play versions of ourselves in the play.  We had to mine conflict between us out of a few outbursts, as there haven’t actually been a lot of [conflicts] in our relationship so that we could bring the drama of what we are going through to the fore.

Challenges of playing ourselves have included the fact that [Matt] is not a trained actor, while Mariya is. Mariya though comes from a theatre tradition that was almost entirely focused on the classics, so playing herself in a play based on her life is definitely a new and challenging experience!

Tell me a bit more about your development process? Was there a typical ‘first read’ or was it different, given your own story inspired the work…

We were able to conduct several development workshops over a period of six months.  There was no shortage of content that we could derive from our lives, so the challenge was determining what to keep and what to let fall away. Even after our first read, we cut 15 pages from our rehearsal draft.  Events in our lives and in Ukraine will no doubt continue to necessitate the evolution of our script.

What’s been the most challenging part of this process for you?

For Mariya, it was buying into the idea (that is quite a common one in Canada) that a play about someone’s real life can be art.  Seeing Hailey Gillis’s My Ex-boyfriend Yard Sale, really helped her believe this was possible.

For Matt, it met the challenge of performing for the first time in ten years.  The last time he performed, he made his friends promise they would never let him perform again, but all agreed it didn’t make much sense for anyone else to play him in this piece.

The most rewarding?

Having already performed several shows in Kamloops, the most rewarding part of this process is sharing this story with refugees from Ukraine.  Their responses have been incredible and have really encouraged us to share our story with as many people as possible.

What do you want the audience to get from this play, and from your character?

We want the audience to join us as we relive our sweeping love story, from Odesa to Toronto.  We want the audience to see the human side of the conflict in Ukraine.  And we want the audience to leave the theatre with the hope that love can and will conquer all.

First Métis Man of Odesa is in Toronto for its world premiere run at the Franco Boni Theatre @ The Theatre Centre from March 30 – April 8, 2023 (opening March 31). Following the world premiere in Toronto, First Métis Man of Odesa will appear at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, The Cultch in Vancouver, and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg. For information and tickets, please visit

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Florence Welch, Martyna Majok, Rachel Chavkin and More On New Musical Gatsby Coming To A.R.T



Florence Welch Photo by De Wilde

Producers Amanda Ghost and Len Blavatnik for Unigram/Access Entertainment, Jordan Roth, and American Repertory Theater(A.R.T.) at Harvard University announced today that Gatsby, a brand-new musical stage adaptation of the legendary F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, will make its highly anticipated World Premiere at A.R.T. in 2024, and will be directed by Tony Award® winner Rachel Chavkin and choreographed by Tony Award winner Sonya Tayeh.

Rachel Chavkin Photo Credit Erik Tanner

Gatsby will feature music by Florence Welch, the Grammy Award-nominated international rock star of Florence + the Machine and Thomas Bartlett, the Oscar and Grammy Award nominee, with lyrics by Ms. Welch, and a book by Pulitzer Prize® winner Martyna Majok.

Martyna Majok by Josiah Bania

Gatsby will be produced at American Repertory Theater by special arrangement with Amanda Ghost and Len Blavatnik for Unigram/Access Entertainment, and Jordan Roth, in association with Robert Fox. Hannah Giannoulis serves as co-producer.

Sonya Tayeh

American Repertory Theater (Diane Paulus, Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director; Kelvin Dinkins, Jr., Executive Director) at Harvard University produces groundbreaking work to catalyze dialogue and transformation. Tony Award-winning and nominated productions include Jagged Little PillWaitressNatasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812; All the Way; The Glass Menagerie; Pippin; Once; and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Its revival of 1776, a co-production with Roundabout Theatre Company, is currently touring nationally. Learn more at

Thomas Bartlett Photo Credit York Tillyer

Additional Gatsby news will be announced soon.

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