Last week, I saw two shows that dealt with race issues and death: nice, light, theatrical fare to counter the depressing daily news of unrelenting global atrocity and violence.
First up was WE ARE PROUD TO PRESENT A PRESENTATION ABOUT THE HERERO OF NAMIBIA, FORMERLY KNOWN AS SOUTH WEST AFRICA, FROM THE GERMANSUDWESTAFRIKA, BETWEEN THE YEARS 1884-1915
The Obie-winning script by Jackie Sibblies Drury was written as a graduate thesis. It both sounds and feels like one, and that's not always a good thing.
Ravi Jain's direction of the garrulous, over-wrought text is brilliant: inventive and intelligent. He gets skillful and sophisticated performances from his talented cast.
Nothing any of them say, or do can rescue the play itself from its overwhelmingly starchy aroma of earnest, self-important, academic over-think. It's a terrific production of an incredibly frustrating script.
The conceit of the piece, an admittedly funny one, is that a collective theatre company has decided to create a devised theatre piece about the subject matter described in the title. It's a play within a play or an inter-text, as the post-modernists would say.
The theatre company consists of three black members, two men and a woman. The black woman (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) is directing the show and feels like the writer's alter-ego. There are also three white actors, again, two men and a woman.
The premise of creating a piece of devised theatre is used to explore, discuss, and debate a lot of ideas about race, privilege, voice, the treatment of historical subjects in a contemporary context, group dynamics, and genocide.
The Germans, we learn, were occupiers in Namibia from 1884 to 1915, apparently committing genocide on the Herero people. It was sort of a warm-up genocide before the one, 50 years later, in Europe. The play makes an effective case that, as the Heroro were not documented, one by one, as they were worked, starved, or executed into early graves, it was as if they simply never existed.
The play draws parallels between these events in 19th century occupied Namibia, and 19th century American society. In case the audience is too dense to get the author's point, she has the white "Germans" speak to the black "Heroro" employing the dialects of the deep American South. Sigh.
What the play does do very powerfully is demonstrate how people get murdered, while other people stand around, watch, and do nothing. I've seldom seen the convention of the 4th wall challenged to such disturbing effect.
A lot is demanded of the cast: Brent Donahue, Marcel Stewart, Brendan McMurtry-Howlett, Michael Ayres, Darcy Gehart and Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah. As a group, they very convincingly have us believe they are making things up as they go along. The surreal scenes of the "play" are done as well as the light comedy off the top, and that's no mean feat.
As the friend who came with me said to me after the show, "I wish artists could take ideas seriously, without taking themselves so seriously." Indeed.
Down the street at the Factory, in its intimate backspace, Nina Aquino directs a sharp, stylized production of BANANA BOYS, a play about five young Asian Canadian men coming of age: their challenges, their passions, their losses, their victories, and their friendships.
The play, by Leon Aureus is based on the novel of the same title by Terry Woo. The script lacks a straight-ahead narrative structure, but that doesn't manage to deprive the play of power or charm.
The backspace has been stripped bare, with a raised steel platform in the centre of a pit stage, with the raked house at one end. Aquino puts the space to excellent use, particularly the various platform levels and the window arches in the back wall. Cel phones are props/light sources in a lot of shows these days, but seldom used as effectively, or artistically as they are here.
The cast is uniformly polished and energetic. Slacker/DJ Luke (Philip Nozuka), nice guy/obsessional Sheldon (Darrel Gamotin), med student/wanna-be novelist Matthew (Mike Chao, also the narrative glue of the piece) rage-fuelled alcoholic Dave (Oliver Koomsatira) and power-broker Rick (Simu Liu) a Bay-street super-star on the outside, and a hot mess on the inside, are all well-drawn by the performers, with both empathy and humour. The actors know these men intimately, and they let the audience know them intimately, too.
The play is very specifically rooted in a community, but universal in the story it tells about how we define success or failure for men in contemporary society, and in its exploration of male friendships. Banana Boys is a fine revival of a still-worthy play.
We Are Proud to Present...continues until November 29th, as part of THE NOVEMBER TICKET at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West http://www.theatrecentre.org for times, tickets and information.
BANANA BOYS continues at THE FACTORY THEATRE , 125 Bathurst Street until November 22nd. www.factorytheatre.ca for tickets, times and information.