My Gay Toronto - 416 Scene

Kawa Ada gets Naked and channels Judi Dench to play a love-stricken Newfoundlander in Salt-Water Moon

by Drew Rowsome -

Kawa Ada is getting Naked again. There probably won't, unfortunately, be any actual nudity as Salt-Water Moon is a Canadian classic set in 1926 Newfoundland, but it is achingly romantic and souls will be bared. Factory Theatre has programmed an entire season of "Naked" productions of well-loved Canadian plays. The "Naked" is, besides a great marketing hook, a reference to the stripped-down style of the productions, the better to focus on the words, emotions and themes.

"I was reluctant to do it," says Ada. "I was scared to do something that is considered very Canadiana, that I wouldn't be able to do justice to it because I spent half my childhood in the East. I didn't want to devalue the cultural heritage of these people." Ada played a female exotic dancer in the Naked Season's Bombay Black and a transitioning Chelsea Manning in Hackerlove, surely a 1920's Newfoundlander is less of a leap. "It's the hardest accent I've ever had to do," says Ada. "Mayko Nguyen feels the same. Nothing in this accent is part of our vernacular but we want to do it justice."

Ada is also painfully aware, but also pleased, that he and Nguyen are "two actors of colour tackling a play that is rooted in an Anglo Celtic tradition. Out of all of playwright David French's plays, Salt-Water Moon is the the most recognizable classic, that makes it all the more dangerous and scary." Ada's concerns come from personal experience, not from this being the year of #OscarsSoWhite. "I'm such a hermit that I don't know what's happening," he says denying any reactive politics, this is an ongoing struggle. "I'm not on social media - the truth of it is, I'm such a conspiracy theorist that I think the less that is out there the better - and I'm forever saying to my family and partner, 'Did you know that such and such took place?' I told my partner about this new thing the Dad Bod, and he said, 'That was a year ago.' I was so disappointed, I was all set to let my belly hang out."

The chances of Ada, with his dancer's physique still intact from his days as a song-and-dance man, sporting a sagging gut are as slim as his being unable to cross a cultural barrier. But it is disturbing to be reminded that one of our finest and versatile actors is still slamming up against racism. Director Ravi Jain (Gimme Shelter) had to persuade Ada to take the role. "He asked twice," says Ada. "Ravi is consciously searching for what is the most universal element. What can everyone latch on to? To go beyond any barriers that exist in our society to find what is the truth of the story."

Ada dug into the text and found his way in. "Jacob has a father who went to war and saw horrors in World War I. He came home and found himself on the lowest rung of the ladder which affects Jacob. I didn't expect to there to be such a direct way that I could relate," understates Ada whose childhood spent fleeing the horrors of the Afghanistan wars was a formative and traumatic experience. "What French has done so brilliantly is, at the core it is a love story, but with people in a society where there is so much inequality. Jacob is full of anger over why the world works the way it does. There is a lot to identify with."

Ada also quips that he thinks he is too old to play the 18-year-old Jacob but then says, "But I don't take on roles unless I'm deathly scared." And another parallel reveals itself: David French is known to recount that he was "indifferent" to the written word until, in grade 8, he was punished for talking in class by being forced to read a book. He randomly picked Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer off the shelf and, a few stumbling chapters in, discovered a terrifying fact: he not only knew he wanted to be a writer, he knew he was a writer. 

Judi Dench was to be Ada's Tom Sawyer. "While studying in Boston, I took the bus to New York to see Amy's View on Broadway. Dench's eye shone like stars. Literally. Her vulnerability . . . every part of her being exuded some tension to be released and feed off the other actors. Nothing since has come to that level of awe. I fled to a little lounge downstairs and broke down and cried, overwhelmed by how much I wanted to experience that as an actor. I will never reach that but it opened up a sense of my objectives as an actor." 

Audiences have less doubts about Ada's ability to shine, and it is exciting that he continues to take risks. "Theatre stays alive when the younger generation moves in," says Ada sounding eerily close to being 18. "They do something new or re-interpret. The life blood is taking something that is revered as a classic and making it relevant, an event for audiences to see. Seeing two actors of colour playing these characters has never been seen before but the Naked series is about the story and what the playwright intended. I've made that leap." 

Salt-Water Moon runs Tues, Feb 23 to Sun, March 13 at Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst St.