AUTHOR: Austin Clark

The most surprising thing about the fact that Colin Taylor is directing Obsidian Theatre’s upcoming production of The Polished Hoe is the realization that he hasn’t already directed for Obsidian before. “This is the first working relationship I’m having with the company,” says the softspoken Taylor, a writer, director and teacher who founded his own company, Theatre Wum, back in the ’90s. (Among other claims to fame, Theatre Wum remains to the best of my knowledge the only professional theatre company in Toronto ever to have produced a play by Suzan-Lori Parks with its version of Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom.

The Polished Hoe play is of course a dramatization of Austin Clark’s Giller Prize-winning novel of the same name. “We’ve been working on the project for about two years; I’ve known Austin for some time and we initially started talking about a film treatment of the book,” says Taylor. “But Alison [Sealy-Smith] called me because she had just read the book and she thought it would make quite a potent drama, and we started developing it as a play.”

Taylor previously worked with Clark on a staged reading of When He Was Young and Free and Used to Wear Silk for one of the AfriCanadian Playwright’s Festivals. “He writes great dialogue,” says Taylor. “One of the things that drives his novels has often been the characteristics of strong drama, like strong characters, immensely speakable dialogue.”

The Polished Hoe is set in 1952 in an imaginary island country called Bimshire – a name that Bajans sometimes call Barbados. The date is significant, says Taylor, because “It’s a transitional time; it’s a period in which the society is transitioning from a slave society to a democracy. But it is important that the audience understands that it’s a fictitious country,” he adds.

“At the core of the book is a 24-hour almost pure monologue by the central character talking about the deed that she has just committed. The story is a kind of police procedural,” he explains. “She has just committed a crime and she is confessing the crime to the sergeant, and the nature of the crime is such that she has to locate the crime in the context of her life in order to be understood.”

Taylor points out that the police sergeant’s role is not entirely a neutral one: “There’s a relationship between these two characters, although they haven’t seen each other for a long time,” he says. “She commits the crime and she narrates or she confesses to the sergeant who is – I wouldn’t say a childhood sweetheart, but in a way it’s a tragic love story.”

Alison Sealy-Smith plays the central character, an elderly woman named Mary-Matilda who has apparently killed the plantation owner for whom she has worked for more than 30 years, and to whom she has born a son. The police sergeant is being played by Tony Thompson, a radio and television actor from Barbados. “Alison is Bajan, and they have a history of acting together in Barbados; they’re a very potent team,” says Taylor.

After the Toronto run, the production will tour to Barbados in April 2007 as Canada’s cultural contribution to the World Cup of Cricket Championships, which is being held for the first time in the West Indies.


Obsidian Theatre Company presents The Polished Hoe from February 22 to March 4 at Enwave Theatre at Harbourfront Centre. For tickets, call 416-973-4000. On Saturday, February 24, Obsidian Theatre holds a Gala Tribute to Austin Clark. Admission is $50, which includes a pre-show reception and tribute with guest speakers, as well as a question-and-answer session with the cast after the show. Austin Clark will be in attendance.