Review: Sal Capone production is “loud, violent and immersive” and finely wrought

Kim Villagante and Tristan D. Lalla in a scene from Sal Capone, a hip-hop theatrical.

The tourism industry might find this one a tough sell.

Early in Omari Newton’s hip-hop/theatre amalgam Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of, now at the National Arts Centre, a transgendered First Nations character named Mac/Shaneyney sneeringly informs us we’re just “tourists,” theatre-goers dropping in for a glimpse at inner-city lives we don’t understand and would rather pretend don’t exist.

Turns out that this is no Baltic cruise.

Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, the finely wrought show is loud, violent and immersive. Like the hip-hop that underpins it, it’s more rhythmic than melodic. And, being hip-hop, it’s littered with the N-word and other language that never seems to lose its ability to make white, middle-class audiences like us cringe.

At its core, there’s also sweetness, unity and a kind of undaunted strength that suggest this alien territory we visit for an hour and a half and the lens we bring to it may yet change for the better.

Newton’s story, directed here by Diane Roberts with the kind of firm hand needed to avoid hyperbole, follows a hip-hop crew in the aftermath of the death of Sammy, their DJ pal and crew member fatally shot by police.

Led by frontman Sal (the commanding Tristan D. Lalla), the group struggles with whether to launch their new album, a symbol of their ambition to forge a different life than the one they’ve always known, or to seek revenge for Sammy’s death.

The story was inspired by the 2008 killing of Montreal teen Freddy Villanueva by police and the ensuing riots. The show premiered in 2013 and has been updated with references to Donald Trump, the fatal shooting in 2016 of the Somali-Canadian man Abdirahman Abdi by an Ottawa police officer, and Tina Fontaine, a First Nations teen murdered in Winnipeg in 2014.

It is, in other words, the story of people marginalized by power structures that try to cut off every attempt by those people to express themselves and claim a bit of what the rest of us enjoy.

The music embodies those attempts.

“Hip-hop is art. It’s storytelling,” says Sal. And while he’s a masterful artist, so too is Jewel (Kim Villagante), his truculent Asian fellow rapper whose freestyling, as she hurls out her stories of alienation and longing, is hypnotic.

Performed on Ana Cappelluto’s raw set of a scaffold, dumpster and a bunch of wooden pallets, the show spotlights not just music as an expression of resistance and unity, but also family as a binding force in a riven, inner-city world.

The crew, of course, is family, including white manager Chase played by Jordan Waunch (we could have done without the pandering mention of Barrhaven as Chase’s home).

But family also includes Naomi, Sal’s younger teenage sister played with a sweet hopefulness by Letitia Brookes. Ultimately swept up in the tragedy that is Sal, she draws out the tender, protective side of her brother, the side that, were it given the chance, one feels could spread like a balm over this wounded place that his crew calls home.

Weaving in and out of all this is Mac/Shaneyney (Troy Emery Twigg). Both commentator on and part of the action, Mac/Shaneyney at times seems part trickster, at other times a person who’s found a way to survive the binary demands of a heartless power structure through sheer cynicism.

“Bang, bang, bang, bang …” he/she occasionally interjects, reminding us that police brutality is a fact in marginalized lives and, it seems, referencing Bruce Springsteen’s similar use of repetition in American Skin, about the 1999 police shooting in New York City of Guinea immigrant Amadou Diallo.

That Springsteen song is powerful, pulling the listener into its eddy as it progresses. So too, in both similar and different ways, is Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of.

While we are drawn into the story of Sal and the others, Newton has structured the show – in part by having Mac/Shaneyney occasionally interrupt the action on stage to address us directly – so that we also always remain “tourists,” outsiders gazing at a life we can’t understand.

Our position on that balance beam is unnerving. Maybe that’s what it feels like to live a life of lamentable tragedy.

Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of is a BoldSkool production in association with Holding Space Productions. It was reviewed Thursday. In the Azrieli Studio until April 21. Tickets:

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.