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Bernard Shaw short story adaptation is the highlight of the Shaw Festival

Ben Sanders as King Solomon and Natasha Mumba as Black Girl in The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God.

David Cooper

4 out of 4 stars

Title
The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God
Genre
Comedy
Directed by
Ravi Jain
Actors
Natasha Mumba
Company
Shaw Festival
City
Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
Runs Until
Sunday, September 11, 2016

Ah, if only the Shaw Festival did more work like The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God.

Playwright Lisa Codrington's adaptation of Bernard Shaw's 1932 short story of the same name is the most Shavian production you'll find in Niagara-on-the-Lake this season. As Shaw's plays were in their time, it is provocative, playful, dialectical and deeply embroiled in contemporary debate around contentious issues. It's an exceedingly entertaining comedy that will also fuel conversation – about religion, yes, but also race and representation.

Shaw's original story was an allegory set in the "darkest of Africa" where a nameless black girl, converted by a missionary, heads off into a forest in search of God, following Matthew's advice: "Seek and ye shall find." There the black girl discovers all manners of Gods from various Abrahamic religions, in their different and clashing historic conceptions, as well as proponents of many modern political and scientific substitutes for a higher power. All are quite happy to chit-chat with her about her search – though she has to fight off a few with her "knobkerry" along the way.

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Codrington takes a faithfully cheeky approach from the start – with Bernard Shaw himself (a preening Guy Bannerman) appearing and attempting to read from his preface to the story.

The Black Girl (a charmingly confrontational Natasha Mumba) comes out to stop Shaw. Partly a character, partly a mouthpiece for the playwright (how Shavian!), she informs him that this is an adaptation, so he's going to have to deal with the fact that much of what he wrote will be missing and that the adapter, an actual black girl, may have a different take on some of what he wrote about. (Indeed, Shaw's sections on pet causes like vivisection are eliminated, as are the sections dealing with Islam – and the ending is all Codrington's own.)

Even once the play gets going in itself, it's clear that it will be irreverent toward the theatrical deity named Shaw as much as Shaw was irreverent to religious ones. "There are a lot of old-ass men pretending to be Gods in this forest," a Black Mamba Snake (Kiera Sangster) warns our protagonist early on.

Indeed, Bannerman, Graeme Somerville and Ben Sanders are laugh-out-loud funny as some such white dudes in beards, amusingly impotent versions of competing Old Testament ideas of omnipotence. The action all takes place on a giant Bible brilliantly designed by Camellia Koo that characters pop out of and tear apart page by page as the play progresses. (In Shaw's short story, the pages keep dissolving.)

Codrington's adaptation is at its most relevantly biting (that is, again, Shavian) when Black Girl encounters a group of white colonialists on safari – the Caravan of the Curious from the short story – who self-importantly debate evolution, physics and mathematics while a black man (André Sills) carries their luggage.

We've seen this dynamic on stage at the Shaw Festival too many times in recent years – productions of progressive-in-their-time plays where white actors bantered while actors of colour carried tea trays. But here, in direction Ravi Jain's farcical but fiercely intelligent production, the image is redeployed satirically.

I enjoyed Sills's exasperated observation of the white men and women trying to outsmart one another, but also Somerville's hilarious parody of a typical Shaw Festival performance, starting observations and epigrams with smug white-guy confidence and then trailing off into gibberish.

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Here and elsewhere, we see Codrington and Jain taking Shaw's anti-colonialist ideas – Black Girl's assertion that the most wonderful things about Western culture are the guns is right from the text, for instance – and then adapting and extending them to the very festival where the show is being presented in the lunchtime slot.

Codrington's play makes its points so persuasively, in fact, that I found it hard to subsequently sit through the anti-elitist play A Woman of No Importance later that evening with an all-white cast of Canadians being oh-so-clever in British accents.

The disconcerting fact is that the Shaw Festival has a segregated ensemble of actors this season. All the plays on the bill that were part of its original mandate (written by Shaw and his contemporaries) are being acted by all-white casts, while only the two plays penned after Shaw's death, and two page-to-stage adaptations, have casts that are a little more representative of contemporary Canada.

I've mentioned it before, but it seems worth noting again: There's not a single all-white cast at the Stratford Festival this season. Look at major British theatres, such as the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre, to see how backward the Shaw Festival has become.

Is the Niagara-on-the-Lake festival regressing into a celebration of Anglo-Irish-Scottish heritage – or arguing for the obsolescence of its core canon? Here in the lunchtime slot, at least, it is making a case for a future that is truly Shavian.

The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God runs at the Shaw's Court House Theatre until Sept. 11 (shawfest.com).

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About the Author
Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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