In the room where it happened

Zuppa Theatre goes verbatim on the Halifax Explosion with At This Hour.

click to enlarge In the room where it happened
Ben Stone
Lesley Smith, Koumbie and Mary Fay Coady get tribunal in At This Hour.

The Zuppa Theatre Co. has made plays set locally before—Penny Dreadful takes place in a Nova Scotia mansion circa 1863; How Small, How Far Away happens in the north end in 2010—but At This Hour: The Deposition of Harbour Pilot Francis Mackey takes a different approach: It’s a piece of verbatim theatre that will be performed in the room in which its events occured in 1917.

One week after the Halifax Explosion, the Mont Blanc’s pilot Francis Mackey faced an inquiry as the devastated city looked for someone to blame (the Imo’s pilot died). It happened in the provincial courthouse at 5250 Spring Garden Road, which is where Zuppa’s four-show run will play out December 16 and 17, 100 years after the original inquiry.

Zuppa was approached by author Janet Maybee, who had written a book about Mackey called Aftershock, to collaborate on this anniversary production. Ben Stone, who directs At This Hour and adapted the text from the original deposition, was drawn to the book’s featured passages. “They were so compelling and real and dramatic,” he says, “and seemed like they were from a play or a screenplay.”

He got to work adapting the deposition—which on its own clocked in at a groaning six hours—into a script. “That is an ongoing challenge,” he admits, adding he’s still hoping to shave a few minutes off the current 90.

Being constrained by dry legal material in a courtroom is just part of the challenge for a company known for its physicality. “This has been Zuppa-fied by not doing it as a re-creation,” says Stone. “We’re not doing it in any sort of period dress. There will be projections going on a la Pop-Up Love Party, to animate the space. A bit of sound design.”

The run sold out more than a week ago, so a new element has been added: A livestream of Sunday’s performance at 7:30pm. “We’re trying to evoke the congressional hearings, the Comey trials,” says Stone. “There’s a news headline ticker on the bottom and a Twitter feed on the side. And the headlines are all from December 1917. The tweets are all actual editorial comments from the papers from the day.”

The cast is comprised of three women—Mary Fay Coady and Lesley Smith as lawyers, and Koumbie as Mackey—playing men.

“Because these are actual words, it creates a bit of a distance from the words, where you know that these people aren’t people who are saying them,” says Stone of the casting. “All of a sudden the words become separate, and you go ‘I can’t believe these words were actually said.’ As opposed to it being a theatrical thing. We’re not trying to make it about the theatre, we’re trying to make it about the words.”

The actors will wear their own clothes and speak in their own accents. “It also introduces the idea that this was a totally different world, that there was no way three women would be doing this, especially a Black woman,” says Stone. “We don’t believe the strength of the words depends on re-creating what happened.”

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