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Actor relates to story about a stranger in a strange land

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Monsieur Lazhar, the Quebec-made French drama, was nominated for a 2012 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar and was chosen best Canadian feature at the Toronto International Film Festival.

The much-admired movie was adapted from Montreal playwright Évelyne de la Chenelière's 2007 one-character play Bashir Lazhar, the name of an Algerian immigrant who helps a grief-stricken class of Grade 6 students cope with their beloved teacher's suicide.

He is also grieving the loss of his family -- killed in a terrorist attack back home -- while trying to convince a judge he is a bona fide refugee.

"I think the movie is lovely because of the children," says David Adams, the Vancouver-based actor who plays the title role in the Theatre Projects Manitoba season-ending production opening Thursday at the Rachel Browne Theatre.

"What's beautiful about the play is the poetry of the language, much of which is missing from the movie. The focus of the movie is really the children while the play is about Bashir and his struggle to find his place and deal with his own demons."

Lazhar is an enigmatic outsider trying to negotiate the perplexing cultural divide of suburban Montreal -- it's that story of a stranger in a strange land that appealed to Adams after Winnipeg director Ann Hodges approached him with the part. Adams, 55, is an immigrant. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, as part of the mixed-race population during the height of apartheid, when he was five he emigrated to England, where he spent his formative years before moving to British Columbia as a teenager.

"It was a real cultural shock," says Adams, who last performed in Winnipeg as Argentine president Juan Perón in the 2003 Manitoba Theatre Centre revival of Evita. "In South Africa, my grandmother wanted me to cut my afro because she wanted me to be as white as possible. My cousins wouldn't sit in the sun on the beach because they didn't want to be any darker."

In England, he was the only non-white in his school in suburban London and was the focus of many derogatory remarks against foreigners.

"They would call dark immigrants wogs and I was a wog," says Adams. "My nickname in school was Rastus, the stereotypical Stepin Fetchit black servant of old movies, because I was a little bit brown. That stung a little bit. So I know what it means to be the outsider that people look at you a little bit funny."

To reinforce the alienness of Bashir, Adams researched an Algerian accent and used YouTube to study the interviews of the Algerian United Nations envoy Lakdar Brahimi. He also talked to refugee families in the claimant process while rehearsing at Crescent Fort Rouge United Church.

Adams condemns the mixed message that Canada sends its immigrants.

"We welcome these people with open arms and then put up all kinds of road blocks," says Adams, who is seen as an ethnic actor and is often cast as the Jewish doctor, the Hispanic judge or the Arab scientist. "It's amazing how glacial the pace is of trying to get to live in this country."

Monsieur Lazhar grossed over $2 million at the box office in Canada and more than twice that worldwide. At the online film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 97 per cent rated it positively.

The play has also found an admiring audience.

"This is a worthwhile play and quintessential Canadian that is in French and English," Adams says. "It's about how we treat immigrants and our education system."

Although Adams has to conjure up the people Bashir is talking to in the play, much of his imaginary interaction is with the students.

One of the main messages of Bashir Lazhar is that children are a precious resource; they must be educated, socialized and treated with care.

"They carry the scars of their upbringing forever," Adams says. "The play is really saying, look out for our children and give them the resources so they have a good start in life."

Theatre preview

Bashir Lazhar

Theatre Projects Manitoba

Opens Thursday, to March 24 at Rachel Browne Theatre

Tickets: $25 at 204-989-2400

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2013 G3

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