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Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s Diggers Is an Ode to the Unsung

A review of Black Theatre Workshop’s latest play

On February 6, I made my way to the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts to watch a moving tribute to the essential workers whose efforts often go unsung: gravediggers. Co-produced by Black Theatre Workshop  – Canada’s longest running Black theatre company – and Prairie Theatre Exchange, Diggers is a production written by the celebrated Canadian playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard as part of her “54-ology”, where she aims to write a play for each of the 54 countries in Africa. Diggers centres around the lives of gravediggers in Sierra Leone during a pandemic, spotlighting their worries and dreams as their community withdraws support. It had its world premiere on the first of February 1 in Montreal, marking the advent of Black History Month with an ode to the under-appreciated backbone of our community.

The play introduces three generations of gravediggers to its audience: the oldest of the trio, Solomon, is played to perfection by Christian Paul as the wisecracking, quirky uncle. His fellow digger Abdul is the most cynical of the three, yet Chance Jones expresses subtle nuances in his performance that elevate his character beyond his apparent pessimism. Abdul and Solomon take on the responsibility of introducing teenaged newbie Bai, played by Jahlani Gilbert-Knorren, to the intricacies of gravedigging. The developing dynamic among the trio gracefully balances humour with moments of heartfelt connection to create a deep bond beyond just family or friendship. What follows is a story of reconciling dreams with reality and of learning how to maintain hope in a world where everything seems determined to dash it down – a world where everything is destined for the grave. 

As director Pulga Muchochoma explains in the program, “Diggers is about self-questioning our position in society in times of struggle.” The pandemic that serves as the backdrop for the play is left intentionally vague, so as to reflect a sense of timelessness. The gravediggers’ work is never ending, and continues “through seasonal flooding, ebola outbreak, and […] political upheaval.” Even though the play’s setting is situated in the specific context of Sierra Leone’s history, the narrative strikes a universal chord with the audience, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the events unfold, the viewer is made to contend with their own role in relation to essential workers, regardless of which country they are in. Diggers makes us think twice about the things we take for granted in contemporary society, and perhaps even leads us to question how we can do better. 

Warona Setshwaelo  – who plays Sheila, a member of the town council – precisely portrays the complexity of grappling with personal loss while owing a responsibility to one’s community. The chemistry between Sheila and Abdul lends itself to explosive arguments between the two, highlighting both sides of a fraught situation: Abdul claims that Sheila does not do enough to sway the town council into adequately supporting  the gravediggers, while Sheila maintains  that she is only able to do so much as one woman dealing with tragedy both inside and outside of work. Neither are satisfied with the other’s answers, nor have the will to argue any further: they are caught in a deadlock. Diggers never shies away from having tough conversations, even when they may be hard to digest. 

The play’s use of music and choreography draws the audience in even further.  Diggers incorporates  song and dance into dream sequences, adding a surrealist quality that helps to foreground the characters’ genuine nature. This musicality familiarizes the audience with the gravediggers in a more intimate way than plain dialogue, allowing us to fully step into their world. It also provides a much-needed release in tension from the play’s more serious moments, giving us a chance to share laughter and song with those onstage. These surrealist breaks from the linear narrative trip up the viewer, making them question what they are seeing and how to respond to it. This approach reinforces Diggers’ overall aim in leading its audience to introspection. 

In its final notes, Diggers moves towards an ending which promises tears and heartache amidst an ever-resilient hope for change. Solomon, Abdul, and Bai’s story ends with a promise from the town council that seems to point towards a brighter future. As I watched the curtain close, and the house lights slowly begin to illuminate  the theatre, I had a feeling that there might just be some brightness for the rest of us, too.

For more information on Diggers, visit their event page on the Segal Centre for Performing Arts’ website. To support future Black Theatre Workshop productions, you can volunteer, donate, or attend events at