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E-volver 2020 - Selective Memory

The words Selective Memory against a round, black vinyl record

On June 26, I had the opportunity to experience Selective Memory at E-volver 2020.

It was a unique experience for me because, although designated low-vision friendly, this production came with no live or recorded audio description.

I am partially-sighted, with tunnel vision in my right eye and light perception in my left. I can recognize facial features and body language if the lighting is good and I am relatively close to the person. I can pick out the details of a room and track movement. To relieve the strain on the vision I do have, I use a screenreading software that translates visual text on my computer monitor, and on my smartphone, into audible output.

I have been attending described theatre and community events for two years now and have come to rely on the superior vision of others to set the scene, as it were, so that I can focus on enjoying the storyline.

Selective Memory, I understood, was built on the Proustian effect – the theory that a vivid reliving of experiences can be elicited through exposure to sensory stimuli. Todd Simmons, a Toronto-based DJ of Afro-Caribbean descent, would spin tunes and relate stories triggered by the music.

There wouldn't be much need, if any, for audio description, I thought.

Except for the fact that viewers of the production would be acting as selectors, using a polling function in Zoom to vote on which tune Todd should spin next.

The polling function and my screenreader did not get along at all.

When I did manage to get it to read me the song titles, I couldn't tell whether I'd voted for the song I intended.

I'll pause here and explain that, as the Low Vision Consultant for E-volver 2020, I'd planned to test this function before the show went live. Last minute technical difficulties on the performer's end got in the way.

Stuff like this is bound to happen when live performance scrambles to move online.

To me, this wasn't a deal-breaker.

In fact, as the show progressed, I became engrossed in Todd's animated storytelling and his expressive body language. Not only did Todd hail from Toronto where I had lived for the first eleven years after my family immigrated to Canada but he and I both were born in Trinidad and Tobago. So, needless to say, I enjoyed the sprinkling of colloquial Caribbean words that evoked memories of elders playing card games while we youth engaged in…mischief, shall we call it.

The convention of the barber shop as a hub for the Caribbean community was a particularly poignant one. As Todd described his go-to barber shop where he found his first job, I recalled several recounts of my brother's trips to his Jamaican barber. By that time, still with the beats of reggae blasting in his ears, my brother had aligned himself with a more reputable crowd. I remember his pride when his barber requested several of his pencil sketches of reggae artists for the shop wall.

When Todd spoke of bullies branding his sister as 'whitewash' for not adhering to their definition of blackness and told the audience of the beat-downs he endured when he defended her, I had to wonder if my brother had endured any injuries over having a blind sister.

I am a person who has always read into song lyrics and lines of poetry. As long as I can remember, I have searched out music that matched my mood and appeared to almost steal the thoughts from my head. I know for every happy and sappy song in my collection, there is a sad song and a mad song.

If only life were made up of happy songs alone.

The beauty of Selective Memory is that viewers didn't know much about the songs and, I'd venture to say, next to nothing about Todd Simmons' life. So we couldn't romanticize or racialize or rationalize the production. We became privy to snippets that were comedic, chaotic and cathartic.

Bottom line, soundtracks run through all our lives. Sadly, we're always too busy to sit back and listen.

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