Sounds and stories from Portugal

Fado, cries form the soul | Photo by Jam Hamid

FADO, the story of a young woman getting in touch with her roots, takes the stage at the Firehall Arts Centre from Nov. 21–Dec. 14.

Described as “part concert and part theatre”, the production uses the Portuguese national music of the same name as a centrepiece for both the show’s setting and the identity of its characters.

Journey of discovery

Connection to heritage is a key part of the play. Elaine Ávila, the Portuguese-Canadian playwright who wrote FADO, did not grow up in Portugal. She was raised in North America, and her attraction to the music from which the play derives its name came from a desire to learn more about her family’s home country.

“I asked my grandfather why I didn’t know any Portuguese songs,” says Ávila, “so he played a fado CD for me, and I loved the sound so much…it enveloped the two of us.”

Portugal has several forms of fado, but the most well-known version of this distinctive musical genre originated in a district of Lisbon, where Moors, Jews and others were amalgamated into one community. That is where Ávila went – years later – to discover more about the music. She was teaching at the University of New Mexico at the time. She and another professor realized they were both Portuguese, but neither had grown up singing the music or knowing their culture in the way they wanted. So, the two of them decided to make the trip across the Atlantic.

“I wanted to see what would happen if I embraced it,” says Ávila. “Many of us come from somewhere else, so I became curious of the stories of how we came to be here. Some people want no connection to where they came from or are unable to have one, but I’m lucky and I’m able to go backwards and see why I’m here.”

She learned a lot on that initial trip as well as subsequent ones – about fado, and about her own family, including the fact that they weren’t originally from Lisbon but rather from the Azores. All of this new knowledge inspired her and made her consider what she had left out of her career up to that point.

“I realized didn’t know any Portuguese playwright,” says Ávila, “and I wasn’t writing any Portuguese plays. I do now, and there’s now this whole wave of Portuguese and Portuguese-Canadian writers emerging who all had that same experience.”

Multi-faceted production

Fado realizes a long held dream of Ávila’s to write about these experiences of cultural rebirth, albeit in a fictionalized context. After leaving New Mexico, Ávila applied for a theatre residency in 2013. Her main idea was to write a play about fado music, but other projects continued to pop up. Finally, in 2018, the opportunity came, and FADO the show was born.

“It is about a Canadian-Portuguese young woman who goes to Lisbon in order to get in touch with her roots, which she wants to do by singing fado,” says Ávila. “She ends up confronting the past of her country and the immigration of her family, and has an adventure in Lisbon.”

The play is inspired by Ávila’s own experiences, though FADO’s protagonist explores country and identity in a unique way. The play is complicated and sometimes dark, but Ávila doesn’t see it as a one-note show.

“It’s kind of funny,” she says. “There’s sadness, and the main character goes through a lot, but I find a lot of humour in the way that Canadian and Portuguese culture collide.”

To fulfill its tagline of “part concert and part theatre”, the show features performances by professional fado singer Sara Marreiros, surrounding this story of the back alleys of Lisbon, mysterious relatives and a personal journey with the powerful native music of the city.

“It’s as if the play is emerging from a concert,” says Ávila. “There’s all these locations, but we keep coming back to fado.”

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