By Ismaila Alfa
• June 24-July 11
• Tickets: $10 (student, available by phone only), $20 (individual), $35 (household)
• 204-942-5483 or tickets.pte.mb.ca
For Ismaila Alfa, "playwright" is now the third description in a hyphenate that previously included "rapper" and "CBC radio host."
The add-on comes with the opening next week of Alfa’s play Voice, premièring as a digital-only production from Prairie Theatre Exchange, starting June 24.
The play encompasses huge transitions both in Alfa’s personal career and in the historic context of 2020-21.
In Alfa’s own life, last August the longtime host of CBC Radio’s Winnipeg show Up to Speed upgraded to host of CBC Toronto’s daily show Metro Morning, after he was called to Toronto to "fill in." Even then, he was already at work on the play, which a year ago had been tentatively scheduled to be performed live in May and June of this year, with Alfa himself appearing onstage.
The whole process began when Alfa, 45, was approached by PTE artistic director Thomas Morgan Jones to work on a project.
"I had interviewed him on Up to Speed and later, he found out that I was also a rapper and singer," says the Nigerian-born, Winnipeg-raised Alfa, who spent a decade as a touring performer. Jones asked him if he’d be interested in working on a project together.
"We met and we just started chatting about what I typically write about in my rap songs," Alfa says, adding that the conversation leaned toward how he wanted to pass knowledge on to his kids, to give them information "about my life, about the community that we live in and the society that we live in."
"We decided that I would start writing with that idea of advice to my children," Alfa says, referring to his three daughters, aged 25, 13 and 11.
The concept took a different turn, first in the wake of a global pandemic, then with the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, captured on video as irrefutable proof of racism in the justice system.
"The pandemic started our work into a spin," Alfa says. "And then the murder of George Floyd, and the reckoning that followed, started shaking the earth around us.
"That really took on a main line in the play. It couldn’t not, given the life that I have led and my experiences and how that affected my children and me.
"To see that video and to try to… not explain it, but to help my daughters process it, the youngest especially, it was a challenge and it became one of the main focuses of my life at the time for quite a while," he says. "We had long talks about what happened there and long talks about the history of what happened through my life and my experiences — everything from Rodney King up until that video of George Floyd."
Because Alfa had moved to Toronto, the job of playing his stage proxy fell to Winnipeg actor Ray Strachan; his three daughters are represented by actress Melissa Langdon.
"I lucked out in that Tom was able to connect with and convince Ray Strachan and Melissa to be part of this play, because they’re amazing," he says. "They blow my mind.
"I’ve been watching the process as the recorded version of this is being put together, and there are just some parts where I’m watching (Strachan) and I feel it’s amazing how much he must understand how I was feeling while I was writing the part that he is reciting. If he doesn’t understand that, he is sure portraying it really, really well."
The show feels like a time capsule for the playwright.
"It became the story of my year, examining how I looked at fatherhood and the future of my children," he says, adding that he was helped immeasurably in the process by Jones and director Cherissa Richards, who helped guide the project to its fruition. It left him with an appetite for writing another play.
"Doing it with them and learning a lot — I mean learning a lot — from them, and then seeing what is possible, I am champing at the bit to take another crack at creating something at some other point in time."
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.