Welcome to The Onion Cellar, a unique nightclub of particular significance. Here you will find no bar, no waiter, no menu. Only onions, cutting boards, and kitchen knives. And music, always live music.
This is the setting for German novelist Günter Grass’ The Onion Cellar, a chapter from his celebrated 1959 novel, The Tin Drum.
To understand why Ahmed Moneka, a 29-year old refugee from Baghdad living in Canada since 2015 might have an interest in this particular story, you need learn something about this extraordinary theatre artist and musician.
Ahmed’s first home in Toronto was in Kensington Market in the heart of Toronto. It was here that he ‘grew up’ in Canada after being forced to remain here when militias in Baghdad threatened his life in 2015. For Ahmed, the Kensington community is rooted in diversity.
People from all over the world gather in this small section of the Toronto and make it their home: Brazilian, Ukranian, Cuban, Chinese, Algerian, Greek, Jewish, Spanish, Argentenian, and more. Their sounds are the sounds of the street. They are the sounds which welcomed, inspired and healed Ahmed when he was alone, didn’t speak English and felt a deep sense of hopelessness.
Ahmed’s experiences in Kensington taught him how to be close with people once again. That vibrancy and sense of union of many peoples is what drew him to the story of The Onion Cellar.
In The Onion Cellar, those who have experience trauma, who feel alone, who are suffering in their inability to share their stories or emotions, visit this celebrated nightclub. There, through the process of cutting and peeling their onions, guests shed tears as they share their deeply personal stories. They peel their suffering away and purge themselves of the pain of the world. This sharing is closely tied to music being played by the bar’s band. The stories lead the music and the music leads the journey, melodies mirroring emotions. Music fills the space, allowing everyone to feel comfortable, open and ready to share their stories.
I first met Ahmed in 2017. He’d been here for two years and was looking to reconnect with his roots in live theatre. With thanks to the Toronto Arts Council’s Newcomer and Refugee Mentorship Program, Ahmed and I were able to spend a year exploring theatre in Toronto, meeting other artists and helping Ahmed to discover his place within the theatre community. Together we developed a project exploring Multilingual Shakespeare. Ahmed became an Artist in Residence during that summer’s production of Othello and ended up touring with the company. Almost immediately, we knew that our journey together would be long-lived.
When Ahmed approached me with his ideas for The Onion Cellar, I knew that I had to support him however I could.
Always a great collaborator, Ahmed’s vision for The Onion Cellar is a piece of theatre created by a group of artists, with everyone contributing to the story being told. This devised theatre process invites us to welcome multiple voices to the process and, after a selection process earlier this year, we’ve assembled an extraordinary group of individuals to help us craft this story including Dillan Mieghan Chiblow, Nehassaiu deGannes, Richard Lam, Alison Porter, Shaina Silver-Baird and Ravyn Ariah Wngz. You can read more about each of these fabulous artists here.
Over the course of the next two months, between October and December 2022, we’ll be meeting twice with each artist over Zoom, gathering their stories and perspectives. Once the interviews are complete, Ahmed will spend some time writing, taking inspiration from and building these varied stories into the foundation which will become The Onion Cellar.
This phase of development will wrap up in the new year with a one-day workshop to bring everyone together, in person, to read through and discuss the play. Future phases will include more writing time, the incorporation and exploration of music and lyrics, and further workshops to develop and shape the play.
We’re pretty sure that the process of bringing this ambitious work to the stage will take years, but we’ll certainly be updating you as we progress.
We’re deeply indebted to Brian Quirt and everyone at Nightswimming Theatre for putting their faith in Ahmed’s vision and providing the seed funding to embark up this extraordinary adventure.