Ac­tor re­lates to story about a stranger in a strange land

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Kevin Prokosh

MON­SIEUR Lazhar, the Que­bec­made 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 re- The­atre Projects Man­i­toba Opens Thurs­day, to March 24 at Rachel Browne The­atre

Tick­ets: $25 at 204-989-2400 marks 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.”

JOE BRYKSA / WIN­NIPEG FREE PRESS

To Mon­sieur, with love: David Adams as Al­ge­rian teacher Bashir Lazhar.

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