Natasha Mumba is brilliant as the title character of acts of faith, the impressive first offering from Factory’s Theatre’s 2020-2021 season of free digital programming. Delivered entirely as a livestreamed monologue, the play is Faith’s account of her childhood in Kitwe, Zambia and her time as a homestay student in Etobicoke, Ontario, narrating how and why she comes to craft a reputation for herself as a performer of religious miracles. The thread guiding this story is Faith’s disclosure of the reasons why, unbeknownst to her devout Catholic community, she has been fabricating her direct link with God: first to escape and then to bring to justice a serial sexual predator targeting Faith and other girls during his missionary trips across Zambia and Canada. Despite the weight of the content, Mumba plays the part with a light touch and a sense of humour that translate surprisingly easily to the screen.
Written during the pandemic by David Yee and directed by Nina Lee Acquino, acts of faith was created especially for this experiment in livestreamed theatre, which was performed on site at Factory Theatre in Toronto, but which I watched at home in Vancouver. In many ways, the story of the spectacle of Faith’s performances—a hole in her palm miraculously appearing in front of her church congregation, the nail used to make it quietly pushed out of view—registers the play’s interest in the question of theatricality and of what makes a play what it is. We might ask, what makes streaming acts of faith at home an experience of theatre rather than of live television? One answer the play offers us comes in the form of its decision not to try to replicate any of the verisimilitude of film or television, which is never clearer than when the seams of the production show, like when we see the uneven motion of the camera wheeling forward or catch a glimpse of hands moving props offstage. These moments manage to preserve our awareness of the suspension of disbelief that theatre still demands, which is to say that even onscreen, what transpires between Mumba and her audience is an act of faith.
This sustained relationship between actor and audience becomes central to the storyline of acts of faith. The three movements of the play roughly correspond to the three “miracles” that Faith performs, each one more audacious than the last, culminating in the final-act twist of a real, honest-to-God miracle that tests our faith in the performance. Up until this moment, the transformative work of Faith’s storytelling is to convince the audience to buy into the possibility of the genuine miracle at the end of the play, which involves a high-stakes last meeting with the priest from Kitwe in the play’s final scenes, where Faith’s goal is to extract a confession from him for what he has done. The transformation that takes place through her telling of the story works in more than one direction, as we learn through Faith’s narration of this encounter: set up from the start as a disclosure by a survivor of violence, the story also exacts a price upon its teller.
In the terms of the play, this dynamic is explored through the conceit of religious confession and the spiritual (if not, for Faith, religious) stakes of telling one’s truth, a process framed throughout the play as the creation of new meaning and new life out of the resources of traditional forms. The confessional at church, the site of Faith’s first encounter with the abusive priest, becomes material for new meaning in this way as Faith’s narrative repurposes confession as a mode of relating to her audience in the pursuit of her truth. This form of disclosure to the audience is, in her words, “something I’m only telling you now at an unknown cost to myself.” I was reminded of these words upon hearing Mumba’s comments on the production during a talkback after the November 21 screening of the play: she remarked that the absence of an in-person audience made each night feel like the first, and that one of the real challenges of this livestreamed theatre project was to go through the run of the performance without being able to adjust and develop in response to cues from the audience. In spite of these constraints, the monologue driving acts of faith succeeded in the most unexpected ways to refresh my sense of theatre as an encounter that leaves both actor and audience changed.
Or as Faith tells us, glowing with the success of pulling off a particularly memorable trick, “the rest is theatre.”
acts of faith
Written by David Yee
Directed by Nina Lee Acquino
November 19-28, 2020