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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Theatre review: Freedom Singer is full of soul

Part musical, part spoken word, part personal exploration

Tracing the tale of Khari Wendell McClelland’s great-great-great-grandmother Kizzy from the American south to Canada and back again, Freedom Singer is a history lesson unleashed through a soul album.

Part musical, part spoken word, part soulful personal exploration, Freedom Singer is led by singer McClelland as he story-tells his experience working with the CBC to document his family’s history.

He spends most of the show in direct address to the audience. Telling stories, singing songs, laughing, and asking questions. Connecting.

The story he weaves is both personal and universal, the story of slavery and how easily we forget the uncomfortable parts of our history, both personal and cultural.

Without spoiling the discovery, McLelland’s tale weaves around his near-mythological great grandmother and her bid for freedom from slavery and injustice. It is juxtaposed against the world McClelland finds himself in today. It is surprising, heartbreaking, and affirming all wrapped up in a complicated ball of theatrical emotion.

McClelland is joined on stage by the luminescent Tanika Charles playing everyone from CBC journalist Jodie Martinson to McClelland’s mother. While McClelland is casual, Charles is precise. She pops into and out of characters like most people change hats. They are joined by guitarist Noah Walker.

Freedom Singer strives to connect with its audience and it mostly succeeds. There are a few moments of forced audience participation meant to bring the room together, but they fall flat without any meaningful payoff. Those moments aside, McClelland is a charmer with a killer story and an awe-inspiring voice.

Go for the music. Stay for the history lesson. Be moved by the people.

Freedom Singer co-created by Khari Wendell McClelland and Andrew Kushnir, with Jodie Martinson. Directed by Andrew Kushnir. An Urban Ink Productions presentation of a Project: Humanity production. On stage at the BMO Theatre Centre (162 West 1st Ave, Vancouver) until October 18. Visit for tickets and information.

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