BWW Review: TOWARDS YOUTH Examines the Effect of Strenuous Societies on Drama Students
Making its world debut in the Project: Humanity and Crow's Theatre production, TOWARDS YOUTH brings five different drama classrooms from around the world, transitioning from Toronto to England, Greece, Taiwan, and India. Written by Andrew Kushnir based on his travels with Dr. Kathleen Gallagher to conduct her research on the narratives and cultures within drama classrooms, the play explores how the strains of society trickle into the lives of students. Posing a poignant and reoccurring question at the start of the show: "how are you going to hear me?," there is no clear answer given at any point, helping to drive the narratives' focus on its young characters.
Featuring a stellar ensemble cast (Aldrin Bundoc, Amaka Umeh, Jessica Greenberg, Loretta Yu, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tim Dowler-Coltman, Zorana Sadiq), the story opens on Toronto's own Middleview High. The dirty carpet, unfinished paint job and smattering of chairs and furniture (set, costume, and lighting design by Ken MacKenzie) immediately sets the tone of the drama room, and the cacophony of noise coming from its inhabitants will be familiar to anyone who's ever been in a room of theatricals.
As the story progresses, Gallagher (Liisa Repo-Martell) and Kushnir (Emilio Vieira) themselves explore what youths are talking about across the globe. Impressive dialect delivery from the multi-lingual cast (dialect design by Eric Armstrong) significantly helps enhance the believability of these transitions.
In Toronto there are explorations of race and sexuality before the narrative whisks the audience away to a small town in England just after the Brexit vote. With a set schedule in place, the researcher and playwright head off to Greece to observe the effects of the ongoing refugee crisis, but an uncooperative drama teacher in Athens forces a change to research and exploration of how not just students, but on their educators, struggle with their cultures.
The play then explores Taiwanese student fears surrounding job prospects and the stress of living next to China's superpower military prior to an Indian school's approach to removing gender inequalities through feminist pedagogy. Unfortunately, the final two schools receive the least stage-time despite the interesting nature of their theatrical programs and students.
While all cast members accomplish the impressive feat of bringing over 35 international students, teachers, and research collaborators to life, Sadiq must be commemorated for portraying some of the most interesting figures with incredible memorability and humour - a British foster child, a controlling Greek teacher, and a headstrong and hilarious Indian school administrator are among her repertoire and all are delivered wonderfully.
Yu's inspiring and supportive instructor for the Taiwan site was a breath of fresh air, carrying most of the dialogue as translator between the students and researchers with great energy. Umeh steals scenes as the outgoing class comedian and leader in Toronto, and Jackman-Torkoff's incorporation of dance and movement to support a monologue offered by Gallagher on Black boys within the classroom offers a welcome boost of energy and emotion to the scene.
Actors never leave the stage during the play, making subtle costume changes on both sides of the performing space to convey different age groups and personalities. The incorporation of video (video design and tech by Amelia Scott) - both pre-recorded during the actual research sessions and shot live from on-stage cameras - feels very natural because of the choice to use projectors on rolling carts, a staple piece of equipment in schools.
TOWARDS YOUTH is successful because it can recognize the limitations of its medium - not all students' and teachers' stories can be told within its runtime, and while some research sites receive more attention than others the play is able to convey the strain felt by youths around the world to great effect. With a powerful, if not a bit repetitive, finale that encourages that youths continue to adjust to their world to survive, thrive, and make change it's the unanswered question around students' fears of not being heard that stands out from the narrative most.
The final moments of the play refer to the drama students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and their campaign to establish better gun control in the US, and seems to answer that query more effectively than any response Gallagher or Kushnir could offer - that if young people band together and leverage their insightful natures, they can adjust and adapt to their environments and become leaders.
TOWARDS YOUTH runs through March 16 at the Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://www.crowstheatre.com/whats-on/view-all/towards-youth-a-play-on-radical-hope
Main photo by Aleksandar Antonijevic