IN TELLING THE HALIFAX EXPLOSION STORY, LULLABY DELVES INTO NOVA SCOTIA’S TROUBLED RACE-RELATIONS HISTORY
Immortalized in books and film, photographs, oil paintings, and scholarly reports, the Halifax Explosion has given rise to countless stories.
There are accounts of courage like the Heritage Minutes in which dispatcher Vincent Coleman dies trying to stop an incoming train.
Some are tragic: heart-rending reports of entire families wiped out, or blinded by flying glass while standing by their windows watching the aftermath of the collision of the Belgian relief vessel Imo and French ship Mont Blanc. And in Hugh MacLennan’s famed novel Barometer Rising, there is romance amid disaster.
Lullaby: Inside the Halifax Explosion is a different kind of tale.
The Eastern Front Theatre production, at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax until Dec. 10, looks at the disaster from the perspective of three people of different ages and ethnicities, who meet in the moments after the Explosion and discover each other’s worlds for the first time as they make their way home to their segregated communities.
Genevieve is a spunky 15-year-old Mi’kmaq girl from Turtle Grove, who makes and sells hockey sticks. Edward, an older gentleman who grew up in Africville, supplies barrels for a brewery. And Greer, is matron at the Protestant Orphanage in devastated Richmond, where virtually all her charges died.
“It’s about an unfortunate event from a human perspective, that isn’t found in school books or museums,” explains Lisa Nasson, who plays Genevieve.
Karen Bassett spent two years writing the 90-minute play. Artistic producer Jeremy Webb commissioned it to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Halifax Explosion.
Lullaby premiered in September in a condensed 45-minute school version that was performed for about 12,000 students across the province over a four-week period.
But it’s not just about the facts, says director Koumbie. “It’s art. It’s an emotional experience.”
She learned about the Explosion while attending Halifax Grammar School where the middle school was used as a hospital. “But I didn’t have any sense of how devastating it was,” she says. “I learned more about the Explosion doing the Harbour Hopper.”
Sitting in a rehearsal room at Neptune Theatre with Bassett, Nasson, and Troy Adams, who plays Edward, she notes she is grateful to Webb for believing that the story should be told by a person of colour and for taking a chance on her.
“All my directing experience is in film, so it’s a huge learning curve,” says the actor-writer-director whose credits include CBC TV’s Studio Black! and short films Ariyah and Tristan’s Inevitable Break-up and 2016 Atlantic Film Festival best Atlantic Short winner Hustle & Heart. Lullaby, with its focus on the characters has a cinematic arc, she continues.
Among those characters is Edward, descendent of Black Loyalists who emigrated to Halifax in the 1780s, says Adams, who also starred in a Neptune Theatre musical about the Explosion in 1992 for the 75th anniversary.
Most recently seen as Donkey in Neptune’s Shrek: The Musical, Adams grew up in Halifax’s Mulgrave Park and attended St. Joseph’s-Alexander McKay School. The 1917 Explosion destroyed the school, killing 50 students. Workers rebuilt it in 1919. But he didn’t know the historic event happened right in his backyard.
“I though Africville was sheltered from the Explosion because of its location, but that’s not true,” he says. “Karen [Bassett] has brought the voice of Africville to the story of the Explosion and that’s a first.”
He says that students and teachers attending the school shows, presented in partnership with Neptune Theatre, are genuinely moved, and loves how they interact with Nasson. “I play the youngest character so the kids can relate,” says the 25-year-old actor and singer, noting she frequently gets asked if she’s really native.
She grew up in Millbrook First Nation, just outside of Truro, graduating from Cobequid Educational Centre, before studying acting at George Brown College in Toronto. Among her credits are Xara Choral Theatre’s production of Fatty Legs, based on a novel about residential schools.
When Nasson read the play, it was the first time she had heard about Turtle Grove, a community that was wiped out by the Explosion.
Bassett’s research at the Maritime Museum, the Nova Scotia Archives, the Halifax Public Library and online turned up almost nothing about Tufts Cove (known as Turtle Grove by the people who lived there) and very little about Africville.
“A lot was from the commercial and legal perspective,” she says. “What I found really interesting was it was always positioned as an unfortunate accident, a disaster, but I didn’t see much from a political standpoint: the inequity of the wages, the segregation about where people lived, the fact so many children in a working-class area died.”
The characters in Lullaby are all pioneers in some regard, continues Bassett, an actor-director-playwright and fight choreographer, who grew up in Halifax’s West End. “Greer’s character [played by Mauralea Austin] is underpaid and an early feminist,” she says. “And all are underprivileged based on the areas in which they live and the conditions of their work.”
Though set in the past, Lullaby delves into race relations in Nova Scotia in a way that makes it relevant today, says Adams, noting that is what drew him to the project.
“The characters are put in a situation where they have to face each other and come to some kind of understanding,” explains Bassett.
“There is a perception that the city blew up and everyone helped each other and were best friends. But if you go back 100 years, you see that’s not the case, you see how uneven the playing field was.
“The play takes us closer to acceptance and understanding and forgiveness. It doesn’t make it all the way there and doesn’t tie it up with a neat bow, but it’s hopeful. Every small change can lead to the next small change,” concludes Bassett, who dreams of staging Lullaby at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, as part of a mission to bring the story to a wider audience.