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SCRUTINY | Borden’s The Last Epistle Of Tightrope Time Is An Incredible Feat Of Memory

By Paula Citron on October 6, 2023

Walter Borden in The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time (Photo: Howard J. Davis)
Walter Borden in The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time (Photo: Howard J. Davis)

Tarragon & National Arts Centre/The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time, written and performed by Walter Borden, directed by Peter Hinton-Davis, Tarragon Mainspace, until Oct. 15. Tickets here.

Venerated actor/playwright Walter Borden has been working on this magnum opus since 1983. In the intervening 40 years, there have been five different versions of the material, each one reflecting growing insights and shifting perspectives. Presumably, this is the last iteration. After all, Borden is 81 years old.

This present production was first performed at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre in 2022. Andy Moro’s set resembles a toll booth, or a parking guard kiosk, or the like. The shuffling old man who arrives has his opera music, his hot drink, and his snacks. As he does his shift, he is prepared to hunker down and think about life, and what’s more, impart to us, the audience, the wisdom of his many years. (Moro also did the costume, lighting and designed the projections.)

Apparently, director Peter Hinton-Davis worked closely with Borden over the last four years, carving out this version from the mountains of material accumulated over four decades. And because this is a Hinton-Davis production, the stage behind Borden is filled with live cam pictures, videos and photographs that reflect aspects of the text, like a river of flowing memories. There is also, à la Hinton, a continuous sound score (courtesy designer/composer Adrienne Danrich O’Neill), featuring shards of music and voices.

Walter Borden in The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time (Photo: Howard J. Davis)
Walter Borden in The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time (Photo: Howard J. Davis)

Ostensibly, all of Borden’s various solo shows under their different titles have been about the reflections of a gay black man, with the overriding theme being the resiliency of the human spirit. These semi-autobiographical plays have featured a changing number of characters, and in The Last Epistle, there are ten, the main one being the griot, Black Man Talking.

Now here is the sticking point. Borden slips in and out of these characters without pause, or, in reality, any logical order. Suddenly you are aware he is someone else. His 90-minuute monologue is like a stream of consciousness, and if you are trying to follow his random thoughts, you will get lost.

Borden’s highly poetic language is dense and opaque. He is a master wordsmith and image maker, and early on, I realized that the best way to enjoy the play is to let the text run over me, creating fleeting pictures in my mind. The warmth of a mother’s kitchen. A hell fire breathing preacher. A freezing cold night and a young male hustler looking for a trick.

Borden has always had a mellifluous voice, and I found myself surrendering to the sound, while I bathed in the stage visuals that Hinton-Davis and Moro had created. In reality, Borden’s play needs to be read, where one can take the time to truly absorb what is written.

So what is the mainline here? An 81-year-old man was able to talk to me for 90 minutes in a flood of beautiful words. It is a phenomenal performance and an incredible feat of memory.


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Paula Citron
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