Neema Bickersteth shines most when Century Song is at its simplest: review

Century Song Created by Neema Bickersteth, Kate Alton and Ross Manson. Directed by Ross Manson. Choreographed by Kate Alton. Until April 29 at Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Ave. or 647-341-7390Exploring 100 years of human existence in less than an hour is a tall order, even for a seasoned and magnetic performer like Neema Bickersteth, a golden-voiced soprano known for elevating musical theatre in Toronto with small but memorable parts like the Moon in a 2012 production of Caroline, or Change.Her solo show, Century Song — described more as a theatrical recital than a story with a narrative — attempts to do just that: to channel the experience of black women of the past 100 years through Bickersteth’s voice, the music of 20th-century composers (Sergei Rachmaninoff, John Cage and Toronto’s own Reza Jacobs), movements by Kate Alton and projections by fettFilm inspired by fine art. Article Continued BelowMotivated by Alice Walker’s book of essays In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens and the gender-shifting, century-hopping Orlando by Virginia Woolf, Bickersteth wordlessly changes identities from one song to another. But the long list of influences and the purposeful avoidance of linear narrative are what make Century Song both appealing and frustrating to a viewer.As the audience files in, black and white portraits of humans of all ages, races and circumstances fade into each other on a large screen and move rapidly as the show begins: Bickersteth appears, walks directly onstage from the front row and a square room is projected, covered in these faces. But because Bickersteth’s performance intentionally focuses on the black female experience (a valuable and worthwhile exercise), the multitude of faces behind her, no doubt intended to portray all human experience, come off as generic and clichéd. The disconnection of Bickersteth’s performance from the images behind her is a recurring issue. An ornate room with snow falling outside the window, circa 1935, is esthetically pleasing but doesn’t inform the situation of Bickersteth’s character. At another point, depicting the 1980s to the ’90s, Bickersteth sings and moves in a business suit while an urban skyline flies behind her; thematically they cohere, but the speed of the animation pulls such focus it dwarfs the performer. The most captivating sequences are often the simplest. Bickersteth wears a ’70s orange jumpsuit and sings the repetitive “Récitation pour voix seule No. 1” by George Aperghis, following a Pop Art projection of the change in fashion and decor in the two decades after the ’50s. The musical repetition is doubled with Alton’s choreography, which adds a new movement and vocal trick to each cycle. Every generation of the song, as in art and life, adds to the previous generation.