Stage Door Review 2023

Redbone Coonhound

Sunday, February 19, 2023


by Amy Lee Lavoie & Omari Newton, directed by Micheline Chevrier

 • Tarragon Theatre & Imago Theatre, Tarragon Theatre,Toronto

February 16-March 5, 2023;

 • Théâtre Denise-Pelletier, Montreal

March 21-April 1, 2023

Jordan: “Is that what hanging out is now – all lectures?”

People planning to see Redbone Coonhound should think more that they are about to see a show at The Second City than a play at the Tarragon. That’s because the piece co-written by Amy Lee Lavoie & Omari Newton comes off more as a series of comic sketches on a common theme than as a well thought-through play.

Redbone Coonhound is structured as eight scenes. Scenes 1, 3, 5, and 7 are set in on the same day in contemporary Vancouver and are focussed on the interracial couple Mike (Black) and Marissa (White). Scenes 2, 4, 6, and 8 are so-called “micro-plays” – the first three set in the past, the last set in the future – that expand upon topics brought up in the scenes they follow in an overtly farcical fashion. While the odd-numbered scenes carry the story forward, the even-numbered scenes do not. In general, they come off as very sub-par comedy club sketches that add nothing to the story and help stretch 50 minutes of material to a 100-minute running time.

The play begins when Mike and Marissa go for a walk in Vancouver’s West End. Mike explains it has been a hard Black History Month for him. He is tired of explaining what the Underground Railroad was neither underground nor a railroad. He is tired of explaining who Harriet Tubman was and what her role was as a “conductor” on the Railroad. Among the various people who pass by are a middle-aged White couple Jeffery and Camille with their dog John. To Mike and Marissa’s dismay they learn that the name of John’s breed is Redbone Coonhound, a name combining two racial slurs in one. “Redbone” according to the Urban Dictionary is a “light-skinned female/male mixed with black and another race”. “Coon”, according to the same source, “originated as a general slur, applied to all African Americans, but ... has come to be synonymous with "Uncle Tom”, “sellout” and other such brandings”.

The breed’s name has nothing to do with race. The first part of the name comes from Peter Redbone, who named and popularized the breed. The second part comes from “coonhounds”, a type of dog developed in the American South for hunting racoons. “Raccoon” itself comes from the native Powhatan term for the animal. The term “coon” acquired its negative connotation when the anti-slavery faction of the US Whig Party used the animal as its symbol in the 1830s.

This history means nothing to Mike. The two terms are triggering, and the rest of the play concerns Mike’s attempts to cope with the outrage the breed name has set off. Any attempt by Marissa to get Mike to look at the breed name rationally, as not an affront specifically directed at him, is futile. Mike attacks on Marissa for defending the name are so vicious it makes Marissa realize what a misogynist Mike is. She says that he thinks his oppression for being Black always outweigh her oppression for being female. To Marissa’s consternation, Mike agrees with this.

The play comes to a climax with a variant of the hoary trope of the “dinner-that-goes-wrong”, namely, the “party-that-goes-wrong”. Here, Marissa and Mike had invited their friends, the White guy Jordan and the Black couple Gerald and Aisha over for drinks. Though Marissa tells the guests not to bring up the topic of dogs, it comes up anyway. The arguments between the Blacks and Whites and between the women and men, sometimes have the nerdish Jordan as their target but finally focus on Mike as the target. In anger he lashes out at Gerald, a policeman, by calling him a “pig” and finally by the dreaded c-word of the dog’s breed.

In the course of the arguments set off by the encounter with the Redbone Coonhound, playwrights Amy Lee Lavoie (White) and Omari Newton (Black), an interracial couple themselves, cover every possible aspect of inter- and intraracial discrimination, racial variants of feminism and the nature of allyship. All controversial topics such as Black conservatism, cancel culture, cultural appropriation, hoteps, Karens, neo-nazis, race as a social construct, rape apologism, reparations, reverse racism, victim mentality, White feminism, White privilege, wokeism and more are bandied about by one member of the party arguing against the others.

Given that the four Vancouver-set scenes are separated from each other by farcical interludes, its difficult to know by the end which words the characters have spoken out of firm belief or simply in anger. Understanding the Vancouver figures as characters is also difficult since Lavoie and Newton have not created these figures as fully rounded characters but simply as mouthpieces for the large number ideas they want to box-tick. The prime example of this is setting up Mike and Marissa as a couple. Mike voices such misogynist and anti-White sentiments, it’s hard to believe he would ever marry a White woman or she him.

If the throughline of the Vancouver-set disturbances set off by the breed name is unenlightening, the four micro-plays that interrupt it are even less satisfying. Each of them reflect as if in a funhouse mirror some reference made in the preceding Vancouver scene. Thus, In Scene 1, Mike mentions that he has to tell people who Harriet Tubman was and that the Underground Railroad was not an actual railroad. Scene 2 is then set in 1834 just south of the border between the US and Canada. Slavery had been abolished the British Empire the previous year. A Quaker couple try to help an escape slave evade two slave catchers and when things seem bad, along comes Harriet Tubman like a superhero steering an actual locomotive of her Underground Railroad, stopping to sing a rap song and rescue the fugitive.

Why Lavoie and Newton so heavily satirize the Quakers’ allyship and paint the male Quaker as a misogynist is unclear. The Quakers were early believers in the equality of men and women. The song is fun but the interlude does nothing to further the Vancouver story or Lavoie and Newton’s survey of racism and feminism.

The second interlude about a version of Shirley Temple and Bojangles is not funny at all. It ends with Miss Sue breaking her leg and facing several rounds of gang rape.

The funniest scene is the third interlude which is a version of movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), except that a pair of liberal White parents have indulged their Afrophilia so far that they have sent their daughter to a traditional Black university hoping she’d marry a Black man. Much to their distress, their daughter brings home the man she loves, a Caucasian professor of Tolkien who has the Whitest likes and pastimes possible. Amusing as this episode is, like the other interludes it does nothing to further the story or deepen the themes except, again, to ridicule White allyship.

Given that the characters are used only as mouthpieces, we expect the actors to put the text forward in a traditional way. The Vancouver-set scenes ask for comedic acting a level or two above realistic. The four interludes ask for farcical acting as over the top as possible. In neither series of scenes is their any exploration or development of character.

Christopher Allen portrays Mike as in a state of anger from the start that gradually increases until he finally explodes in Scene 7. It’s a relief to see him play a conservative Black businessman in the futuristic Scene 8 just to know that Allen can play calm and confidence as well as anger.

Chala Hunter plays Mike’s Marissa as a calming influence in Scenes 1 and 7, but as a constantly outraged young woman in Scenes 3 and 5. Hunter is excellent in both modes, but it is hard so see how Marissa can continue to live with Mike after the abusive outbursts he subjects her to.

Lucinda Davis is hilarious in all four of her roles. They are all variants of the “sassy Black girlfriend” stereotype, but Davis imbues each role with such positive energy she generally outshines everyone else on stage. Her most outgoing role is as the rapping 19th-century superhero Harriet Tubman, a scene that makes us expect another musical break that never happens. She is also especially fine as Aisha, Gerald’s wife, who always has a snappy comeback for any remark.

Deborah Drakeford has four roles. She has played so many serious to dangerous characters in the past year it is a pleasure to be reminded of Drakeford’s gift for comedy. It’s too bad that her characters in Scenes 2 and 8, a Quaker’s wife and a Karen of the future, have to be so humiliated, but Drakeford does have the chance to play extended comedy as the dashiki-clad Afrophile Mom in Scene 6. Drakeford is a hoot as a knee-jerk leftist who struggles to conquer her inclinations to accept her daughter’s unacceptable White boyfriend.

In other roles Jesse Dwyre has five roles but his best as Jamal, the unacceptable White boyfriend of Scene 6. Dwyer plays the professor of Tolkien studies as a nerd but when he slips into Elvish he reveals how deep into Germano-Celtic fantasy Jamal really is. He is also amusing as Jordan, the frustrated White friend of Mike and Marissa, who, for unexplained reasons, is always the target of Aisha’s ire.

Brian Dooley has four roles but is funniest is as the White father who is outraged by his daughter marrying a White man.

Kwesi Ameyaw has five roles but his best is the serious role is that of Gerald the policeman. Ameyaw shows us how Gerald controls himself throughout Mike’s increasingly obnoxious rants against women and the police until Mike aims his insult directly at Gerald as a policeman. At that point Gerald can contain his anger no longer. Even if the play is meant to be a comedy director Chevrier and associate director Kwaku Okyere allow this scene to veer directly into most earnest drama. It would be good if Lavoie and Newton could allow the break between Mike and Gerald to work itself out either to a permanent break or to a reconciliation, but they don’t. They have another comic interlude waiting in the wings and a bit of farce is more important than dealing with the important problem of intraracial discrimination that they have raised.

The transitions from the Vancouver scenes to the comic interludes are accomplished through projections designed by Frank Donato which include handsome animations of a Redbone Coonhound running by Dezmond Arnkvarn. The projections and animation are so slick they seem out of tune with scenes they introduce which all have the slapdash feeling of improv even though they are fully scripted.

In the confrontations of Scene 7, the authors have Jordan remark that race is a social construct. The others, Black and White, laugh him down. The problem is that what Jordan says is true. There is no scientific basis for race. There is no gene that is a marker for race. The photographic Humanae Project by Angélica Dass shows that human skin colour is a continuum with no clear dividing lines between white, black, brown, yellow or red. The question Jordan raises is fundamental to the entire play. If there is no such thing as race, what makes people self-identify according to the idea? What makes people identify other people according to it? How can prejudice arise from something that is not real? The fact that the authors have Jordan’s remark dismissed so swiftly demonstrates more than anything how superficial the play is.

The best that can be said for Redbone Coonhound is that it puts all the current debates surrounding race and feminism out there even though it does nothing to resolve any of the arguments it raises. The authors at least note that most models of racism in Canada are actually based on statistics from the US, and they have Mike mention that only 3% of Canadians are Black. (The ratio is 12% in the US.) You would never know it from the terms in which racial diversity is discussed in the two countries, but in Canada the second largest racial group is South Asians at 7% and in the US it is Hispanics at 18%.

The worst that can be said for Redbone Coonhound is that the four farcical interludes that are meant to expand on ideas in the Vancouver-set scenes do not augment those scenes but trivialize them. Indeed, by avoiding any kind of resolution to the extremely harmful remarks made between characters during the play, the authors make the entire play appear an exercise in undermining the importance of discussions of race, feminism and diversity. This, along with nature of the piece as sketch comedy, make Redbone Coonhound one of the most unlikely plays you would expect to see at a theatre like the Tarragon.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Deborah Drakeford as Camille, Christopher Allen as Mike, Chala Hunter as Marissa and Brian Dooley as Jeffery, © 2023 Cylla von Tiedemann; a Redbone Coonhound; Chala Hunter as Marissa and Christopher Allen as Mike; Chala Hunter as Marissa, Jesse Dwyer as Jordan, Lucinda Davis as Aisha and Kwesi Ameyaw as Gerald; Deborah Drakeford as Mom and Brian Dooley as Dad, © 2023 Cylla von Tiedemann.

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