Roughly a year before the world premiere of her play The Bridge at Halifax's Neptune Theatre last month, Shauntay Grant collaborated with 2b theatre company to hold a staged reading of her gospel-inspired tale of two estranged brothers for a public audience at Dalhousie.
Hosting the reading at Dal was a natural fit for Grant, who is an assistant professor in the Department of English, and it proved to be a useful exercise as she fine-tuned the script.
Performed in Studio One at the Dalhousie Arts Centre, the reading enabled Grant to elicit feedback and commentary on the play from a live audience prior to a formal premiere.
"It was great to get a sense of how people were responding to the work before the actual premiere," says Grant, former poet laureate for Halifax (2009-2011). "It was great connecting with the Dal community in those earlier stages of the play."
Grant teamed up with Halifax-based 2b in 2016 to develop the play as the company’s Playwright-in-Residence. Previous workshops and staged readings of the play with Eastern Front Theatre and another at Montreal's Black Theatre Workshop also provided input for the production, which is Grant’s professional theatre debut.
A powerful story
A 2b and Neptune Theatre co-production, in association with Obsidian Theatre, the play tells the story of the strained relationship between two brothers who have gone 22 years without speaking. As the drama unfolds, the brothers reveal details about their falling out, touching on themes of secrecy, sin and shame as well as faith, family and forgiveness.
While set in a fictional rural Black Nova Scotian community, Grant says she has included elements that localize the play ane make it feel familiar — particularly the language and music of “the world the characters inhabit.”
Grant says she spent a lot of time considering what music to use and where to use it in the script. One of the brothers in the play is the pastor at the local church, so church music has a big part in the play.
“The music of the play is largely traditional gospel spirituals, many of them spirituals I’ve known from childhood,” says Grant, who grew up in Halifax.
But traditional blues music also served as an early inspiration for the play, in particular, Son House’s rendition of the call-and-response classic “John the Revelator,” which supports the storyline and reflects the historical connection between gospel and the blues.
Performed primarily by a trio of women who double as the community gossips, the music contributes much more than something nice to play in the background, Grant says. The lyrics speak strongly to the themes of the play, in some scenes even describing the action unfolding on stage.
Anthony Black, 2b’s co-artistic director and director of The Bridge, has described the play as a “powerful story” with all the elements of a classic such as “beautifully drawn characters, humour, drama, and music that gets into your cells.”
To unlock the play’s potential, Black, Grant and the extended creative team assembled a compelling cast of seven, including leads Jacob Sampson as John Solomon (one brother) and Jim Codrington as Reverend Eli (the other brother).
The Bridge opened Friday, Jan. 25 and runs until Feb. 10. Tickets can be purchased online, by phone, or in-person at the box office.
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