Stage Door Review 2022

She’s Not Special

Friday, February 11, 2022


written by Fatuma Adar, directed by Fatuma Adar & Graham Isador

HomeMadeIt Productions & Pressgang Theatre with Pandemic Theatre, Next Stage Theatre Festival, Toronto

February 7-13, 2022 online

Fatuma: “You like it when I check your boxes?”

Fatuma Adar’s play She’s Not Special proves just the opposite of what the title states. Adar is very special. With this play she has written one of the most metatheatrical works imaginable. It satirizes both what an artistic director and a typical non-BIPOC audience would expect from a play by a Black Muslim female author and what a Black Muslim female like herself feels she ought to do when writing a play. Through spoken word and song Adar thoroughly deconstructs the false idealism of people who see fellow human beings first as representatives of a certain ethnicity or religion and only second, if at all, as individuals.

She’s Not Special shows Adar walking into Daniel’s Spectrum where her show is to be filmed for streaming. As she enters she is preoccupied with the notion of Black Excellence. Once she reaches the stage in the Ada Slaight Theatre, she raps about the relation between her as the main character and the audience. Then she declares that “Black Excellence is a scam”. She wonders why just because she happens to be Black she has to be “excellent” for the benefit of all Black people. She would like to be like Beyoncé, but why should a Black person have to reach the level of Beyoncé to be praised?  Why can’t she just be herself which, she thinks, maybe simply mediocre? Why should there be pressure placed on her as an individual to represent her entire race in whatever she does?

After her first rap song Adar sets up a comparison between herself, now at age 30, and herself at age 5 which she represents through a photo taken of her as a girl placed on a stool so that the picture is always in sight. In the photo she is wearing her father’s mortarboard and holding his diploma when he graduated from a course because she thought they were so impressive.

The show’s main question is how did the wide-eyed optimist of the picture who thought she become a doctor turn into the cynical satirist writer/performer we see before us. The show does not answer this question through words, but through the accumulation of evidence demonstrates that it has always been Adar’s prime concern to be true to herself.

The barriers she meets to achieving this goal come in all forms. In one of the most biting scenes Adar takes advantage of the magic of video and plays both herself and the Artistic Director of a Toronto theatre company on stage at the same time. Now when Ontario theatres seem to been competing with each other in trying to prove their wokeness, Adar stages an encounter where the Artistic Director tells Adar that the play she has submitted is lacking the most important ingredient. This is trauma. What Adar’s play is lacking is trauma. In an hilarious song the AD sings to Adar, “You need to explore your trauma if you want the drama”. Trying to be helpful, the AD asks Adar if there is nothing bad that has happened to her – the death of her parents, struggle, discrimination?

Why, indeed, should non-BIPOC people assume that BIPOC people have suffered trauma? And, if if they have, why should personal trauma be the only subject open to them? As Adar asks, “I shouldn’t have to exploit my pain for my work”. Adar thus handily slices through identity politics as a source for theatre by discrediting both the producer and the performer who seek to exploit it. As Adar says later on, “Sometimes I wonder if we need to remember who we were before the identity language”.

Adar says that when it comes time to apply for grants, she often feels like two people. The one is her ordinary self. the other is a woman filled with complexity because of belonging to three oppressed groups who has found something to say of vital cultural importance to Canadians.

After Adar cuts a song short because it is not landing, an interview on The Hollywood Reporter suddenly comes on screen with Graham Isador (the play’s dramaturg and co-director) interviewing Adar. Isador claims he has organized a round-table discussion with Adar and a Black person, a Muslim person and a woman to discuss Adar’s show. In reality, he has only invited Adar because she represents all those groups. (Again Adar is treated as a representative of groups rather than as an individual.) After Isador wilfully misconstrues everything Adar says, the show flips back into Adar’s discussion of the one thing that someone said to her that really got under her skin.

In grade school a classmate claimed that the Black rapper Ludacris was the greatest lyricist in the history of music. Adar said that she preferred the (White) rap group Linkin Park. In response she is called an “Oreo” (Black on the outside, White on the inside). This leads to the most memorable song of the show in which Adar wonders, “Do I like what I like or is it white supremacy?” Adar’s self-flagellation is interrupted by a kind of dea ex machina in the form of a (pre-recorded) intercession by Toronto singing legend Fefe Dobson, who tells Adar: “Girl, nothing that you do, say or like will ever make you less Black. Impossible. Just do you”.

As we see, just being her has been Adar’s goal all along. As Adar realizes in one of her numerous pithy remarks, “You can create whatever you want without thinking you have to solve their diversity problem”. The main difficulty goes back to ticking boxes. Echoing the complaints one heard from people promoted during Affirmative Action in the US, Adar asks, “What if the only reason people read my shit is because I check their boxes? How do I know if people like my work for anything else?”

Adar’s play with songs is thus a show about the problems that a multi-box-ticking woman has in creating a show about a multi-box-ticking woman who doesn’t want to be “special” but just an individual. Adar’s show is brilliant for its skillful puncturing of so many cultural and artistic truisms that have suddenly been accepted as inviolable truth. Reflecting this self-awareness in subject matter is an extraordinary self-awareness in presentation.

Adar’s play was originally set to run live during the last week of January, but on January 3 when the province cancelled live theatre performances, Next Stage decided that it would film for streaming four of the five in-person shows it had planned. During the time between Next Stage’s announcement of the switch to digital on January 12 and when Adar’s show premiered online on February 7, Adar seems to have completely reimagined her play. With typical self-referentiality, Adar’s play became a play about performing a play filmed in an empty theatre that had been planned for a live audience.

On entering the Ada Slaight Theatre she greets the audience and then realizes that they can’t answer back. She sings one song about anxiety after which she hopes “maybe nobody will ask me to be a part of their diversity committee ever again”. But she notices that it’s humour is not “landing” because there is no live audience, so she cuts it short and walks off the stage. Later on she sings a song about exploiting stereotypes on stage that has the refrain, “Don’t blame me just blame the system”. Paradoxically, Adar calls out “all together now” and the screen suddenly becomes a Zoom screen of people (associated with the show) all in their own homes singing along.

Metatheatricality and self-referentiality, besides trenchant satire, have been Adar’s sources of humour all throughout the show. So it is great to see this approach extended to the show’s particular circumstance as a show intended for a live audience but now filmed.

Adar and videographer Roya DelSol have used the chance to film the show to add all sorts of antique music video effects to Adar’s songs such as images floating by in bubbles or splitting the screen in half even when not appropriate. The humour in She’s Not Special exists on so many levels that it really requires multiple viewings.

It also requires multiple viewings from the Adar’s principal targets – the artists willing to fall in with the notion of minority artists exploiting their trauma for entertainment and the artistic directors who programme seasons with a view only toward box-ticking rather than the quality of the shows they choose. Adar’s whole show is about getting people out of boxes – either the ones that other people put them into or the ones they put themselves into.

Adar’s skewering of the sanctimoniousness weighing down Toronto’s indie theatre scene (and incidentally of the Stratford and Shaw Festivals) is enormously refreshing. Adar is a major talent with a winning personality, a piercing intellect combined with acute self-knowledge. Adar is funny and has a quick wit and a fine ability to write songs in a wide range of styles. If only She’s Not Special could run for longer than only one week. Be sure to keep and eye and ear out for whatever she does next.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Adrian Hogan on keyboards, Fatuma Adar as an Artistic Director and Fatuma Adar as herself; FeFe Dobson and Fatuma Adar; Fatuma Adar. © 2022 Roya DelSol.

For tickets visit