Last Friday, the English and Drama Student Society premiered Ashes and Dust, a play written and directed by Max Ackerman.
The plot follows the protagonist, Simone Merlette (Fuschia Boston, Jahnelle Jones-Williams), a young African American woman from the fictional town of Jacob’s Landing in Massachusetts. Simone aspires to be a musician, but faces many obstacles within the community that prevent her happiness. Ashes and Dust conveys the hardships women of colour experienced at the start of the 20th century. Throughout the play, Simone struggles with racism and isolation.
Ackerman sought inspiration from Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play, Our Town. This play focuses on the lives of everyday citizens. He based Simone off Wilder’s character, Simon Stimson. Both characters are church organists, but their struggles cause them to decline into addiction.
Ashes and Dust was divided into three acts. Each act represented a different time in Simone’s life, portrayed by two different actresses. Act I presented Simone’s childhood, where she learned to read and sing from her best friend Edwina Kamiski (Emma Ratcliffe). Both girls experienced racism, as Edwina is Polish. Act II involved Simone leaving Jacob’s landing for Boston, where she learned to play music from Josephine Leroy (Afreen Shar), a church organist. Josephine was wise, saw faith in humanity, and inspired Simone’s love for music and song. In Act III, Simone returned to Jacob’s Landing to face her family and the townspeople.
Boston often interacted with Jones-Williams, who played young Simone. She spoke to Jones-Williams directly or placed her hand on her shoulder, which contributed to the reflective quality of the production. The ideas of racism and rejection in Ashes and Dust are universally applicable, even in modern society. The townspeople of Jacob’s Landing turn a blind eye towards Simone and her problems. The most common phrase they use is, “leave well enough alone.”
The set for the play was simple, with a black curtain used as a backdrop and several chairs and a piano used for different scenes. The clothing style was also subtle: the cast wore black-and-white. The simplicity of the scenes allowed the audience to interpret the setting with their own imagination. It also heightened Simone’s story, because she tells the audience what the setting looks like during her monologues, adding to the emotional significance of each place. The lighting was dim and silhouetted key characters. It also changed throughout to accentuate the characters’ emotions.
Ashes and Dust also focused on singing, music, and religion. Throughout the play, the cast sang, pretending to be the church choir—the one place where Simone felt she belonged. “Amazing Grace,” Simone’s favourite hymn, reoccurred throughout the story. Simone first sings this piece with Edwina as a child, then she practices it when she is a choir minister’s assistant, and finally, when she runs her own choir. Simone relies on her faith to guide her musicality. She often refers to singing as “God’s breath.” She claims that singing occurs when words aren’t enough.
Boston engaged with the audience and brought them in to her personal struggle. Mussié Berhane also offered a compelling performance in his role as Simon Merlette, Simone’s father. Simon struggled to build a life for Simone after his wife’s death. He was angry at the world for never recognizing his work, as well as his constant struggle to achieve his goals. Berhane’s emotional investment in the role certainly showed; I could truly feel Simon’s pain.
Simone’s story resonated with the audience. Her experience connects with those who have ever felt isolated or oppressed. But despite these conflicts, Simone teaches us that we are worthy of love and acceptance. Most importantly, there’s a place for everyone in the world.
Ashes and Dust ran from March 24 to 25 in Spiegel Hall.