11/08/2012 01:05 EST | Updated 01/08/2013 05:12 EST

Poet Dionne Brand debuts play about police shooting

Award-winning Toronto poet Dionne Brand will see her first play debut onstage Thursday, when thirsty premieres at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Set in Toronto in 1978, thirsty tells the story of Alan, a Jamaican man killed in his Toronto home by police, and how the memory of the event reverberates for the women in his life.

“I tried to think of how your life can split open in that public violent moment — I wanted to think through how that woman felt, what her family felt, when that kind of event happened in her life,” Brand told CBC News.

Thirsty began life as a poem, first published in 2002. Former NAC English theatre head Peter Hinton suggested Brand adapt it for the stage. The poet, winner of the Griffin Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry, became playwright-in-residence at the NAC while she adapted the work.

“Thirsty, in particular, was perhaps a book that leant itself to the possibility,” Brand said, pointing out that the poem has a strong narrative thread.

“I think it’s OK because I don’t think that poetry is far from theatre. There is that kind of compression of words and sort of the same kind of action,” she added.

“I wasn’t versed in playwriting. But I love language and I think in theatre language is also appreciated and loved, listened to, the texture of language, its purpose and so on.”

There are four characters in thirsty: Alan, played by Andrew Moodie; his mother, portrayed by singer-actress Jackie Richardson; Alan's daughter, played by Carol Cece Anderson; and his wife, played by Audrey Dwyer.

In adapting her poem, Brand was able to extract sections of dialogue that worked onstage. She conceived of Alan as a kind of chorus, speaking from beyond the grave.

“I’m just fascinated by what actors do and these are four fabulous actors. And when I saw them here at rehearsals in Toronto, I thought ‘Wow. OK. Those words are going to be all right in their mouths,'” Brand said.

“There is something that they pull from themselves, a wonderful appreciation of human beings."

The NAC presents thirsty, directed by Hinton, from Thursday through Nov. 17.