Stage Door Review
Sunday, November 28, 2021
by Jordan Tannahill, directed by Tawiah Ben M’Carthy
Young People’s Theatre, Toronto
November 22-December 18, 2021 online
“When the sun shines, we'll shine together” (“Umbrella”, Rihanna, 2007)
Young People’s Theatre opens its 2021/22 season with a production of Jordan Tannahill rihannaboi95, a video play that won the 2013 Dora Award for Best New Play, Theatre for Young Audiences Division. To begin with this play is a brilliant idea for several reasons. First is that at a time when many theatres have “pivoted” to video because of the pandemic by filming stage plays, rihannaboi95 is a play written directly for the medium – one of the first and one of the best. Second is that the play’s themes of homophobia and society’s attempts to thwart self-expression have not gone away. Third is that because fo the pandemic the play’s atmosphere of isolation and claustrophobia are even more relatable to the world at large than they were in 2013.
The action concerns Sunny (Davinder Malhi), a high school boy, who has taken refuge in the bedroom of Keira, a girl who works in the makeup department in Shoppers Drug Mart who once helped Sunny and once dated Sunny’s older brother, King. Sunny has logged into his Instagram account to explain to his followers what has happened and to ask them for advice about what to do.
For his civics class Sunny chose to write a paper about his favourite pop singer Rihanna, particularly how she overcame domestic violence to become a billionaire. Unlike his fellow students, Sunny’s teacher Mr. Bailey is intrigued with the idea and encourages Sunny to pursue it. Mr. Bailey casually refers to his husband and Sunny, who is from an Indian-Canadian family and lives in an Indian-Canadian community, realizes that Mr. Bailey is the first out gay man he has ever met.
Since Sunny and Mr. Bailey have talked so long and since the school’s library has closed, Mr. Bailey lends Sunny his tablet to write his essay. Sunny, who has always privately lip-synched to Rihanna’s songs and copied all her dance moves, uses the tablet to record one of his performances. Mr. Bailey sees it, likes it and encourages Sunny to do more since he wants to further Sunny’s freedom of self-expression. But he also wants Sunny to write the essay.
Over the next weeks Sunny begins posting his videos to TikTok using his moniker “rihannaboi95” and is amazed at how many followers he garners. He is elated by the comments of his admirers and does not let the comments of the haters get to him. The one problem is that he has to make his recordings in secret because he does not want his very strict family to know. King catches Sunny one time using their mother’s lipstick, but seems willing to keep it a secret. After that, Sunny goes to Shoppers where he meets Keira, who helps him choose makeup for his videos in a completely non-judgemental way.
Sunny posts his videos on social media to reach a wide audience and to receive feedback, but, like many people, he forgets that once the videos are out there anyone can see them including those you’d like not to keep away from them. Eventually, Sunny is ridiculed at school, accused by his father for bringing dishonour on his family and his people and becomes the target of boys out to teach the “dancing gay boy” a lesson.
Malhi gives such a convincing, urgent performance you forget that he is even acting and that you are watching a play. His dancing (coached by Anita Majumdar) is so good that we can see why Sunny would gain lots of followers.
As a video, however, I tend to prefer the original production, made in Tannahill’s own bedroom and livestreamed from there nightly April 23-28, 2013. While Camellia Koo has made Keira’s bedroom for the 2021 production look very much like a suburban girl’s bedroom, it is perhaps a bit too perfect. Bolster pillows that have to be removed to sleep in a bed are something more likely seen in hotels.
Tannahill’s bedroom was sparse making Keira seem more like a teen just starting to earn some money. The filming, too, was rawer, and, as befitting the situation, without edits. Tawiah Ben M’Carthy commits the same error in directing the filming of rihannaboi95 as Nina Lee Aquino did in directing David Yee’s acts of faith last year. Even though both plays are purportedly a person’s confession to a laptop of a smartphone, both directors include shots outside of the broadcast images. M’Carthy begins rihannaboi95 with two minutes of shots establishing where Sunny is and Sunny’s setting up to make a recording, whereas the original opens directly with Sunny’s recording as does the text. In both cases, we should see only the filmed document the protagonist is making without having an outside perspective on that character since the point in both cases is that we judge the character only by the document they create.
In rihannaboi95 this is especially important because Tannahill has taken the daring strategy of presenting us with a character who is not fully aware of the implications of what he does and says. This makes the character much richer than is usually the situation in a solo confessional play.
In Sunny’s case, he says early on that he is not gay, a statement he repeats more than once during the play. It is true that his adoration of Rihanna and his desire to imitate her look and moves does not make him gay. Yet, Sunny seems unaware of his instant attraction to Mr. Bailey. In class he imagines that Mr. Bailey is speaking only to him and he even fantasizes about what Mr. Bailey would look like with his shirt off. When Mr. Bailey mentions his “husband” in passing, Sunny reacts with mixture of surprise (that a teacher should be so out) and disappointment (that Mr. Bailey is already spoken for). Malhi conveys this conflict of feelings beautifully.
Although Young People’s Theatre tends to treat the plays it presents as pedagogical devices and to seek out the “messages” they offer, Tannahill is too subtle a playwright to aim at writing a play with a simple message. Though it initially may seem straightforward, rihannaboi95 has complexities that defy a simple explanation. Tannahill has said elsewhere that the protagonist of the play is gay, but it is clear from the action that Sunny does not think so. Has Sunny merely internalized the homophobia of his presumably Muslim subcontinental family and community, is he denying he is gay because that’s how his online haters view him, or or is he simply so innocent and inexperienced that he does not see the contradictions in his behaviour. The last is how M’Carthy has directed the play and how Malhi acts it but we can still see the other possibilities in the background.
This portrayal of Sunny as an innocent means the play’s conclusion has a far more open-ended outcome. Presuming Sunny survives the attack he fears is coming, he could easily retreat into himself and never discover who he is since he is being persecuted for being something he thinks he is not.
The endings of the 2013 video and the 2021 video are quite different in tone. In the 2013 version Sunny (Owais Lightwala) dances to Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been” but suddenly breaks off to turn off the smartphone when he hears a knock at the door. In the 2021 version Sunny dances to the same song, the lighting by Michelle Ramsay pulsates in different colours as if the bedroom has become a disco, the door opens and Sunny keeps on dancing.
The 2013 version continues the growing atmosphere of fear and tension that director Zach Russell had carefully maintained. The 2021 version ends as a fantasy with Sunny deciding to be himself (paradoxically by becoming Rihanna) in an act of defiance. It is really a matter of swings and roundabouts in trying to decide which ending is better. The 2013 ending is more realistic. The 2021 ending is much more ambiguous. The difference simply shows what a rich text Tannahill has created that in the space of only eight years can generate two such different interpretations.
In 2013 rihannaboi95 was published along with two other one-act plays, Get Yourself Home Skyler James and Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes, as Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays and won the Governor General's Literary Award for Tannahill when he was only 26. YPT’s new rihannaboi95 is a must-see for all theatre-goers as one of the foremost examples of depicting the complex character of a gay person in a play. The work is also a must-see for all those who wish to see a prime example of how theatre on video can work successfully. Tannahill’s rihannaboi95 is ultimately about the convoluted nexus of family, ethnic origin, social politics, burgeoning sexuality, yearning for role models and desire for personal expression in which today’s young people live. It is not a simple world to negotiate and it is part of Tannahill’s genius that he does not try to make it simple.
Recommended for ages 13-18
Photos: Davinder Malhi as Sunny. © 2021 Joshua Hind.
For tickets visit www.youngpeoplestheatre.org.