Stage Door Review

21 Black Futures, Season 1

Thursday, February 18, 2021

✭✭

conceived by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

Obsidian Theatre Company, Toronto

Streaming from February 12, 2021

“What is my authentic voice?” (The Death News)

Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, Artistic Director of the Obsidian Theatre Company, has created an incalculably important work in the video play anthology 21 Black Futures. Conceived last year during the pandemic and in the wake of world-wide protests condemning White violence against Black people, Otu asked herself and 21 Black authors the question “What is the future of Blackness?”  The response was 21 monodramas each guided by a Black director and performed by a Black actor.

The 21 short plays are presented in the form of three “seasons” of seven plays each. On the basis of the first season that opened February 12, the responses that Otu has received to her question are varied and complex in genre, tone and style. The plays present a kaleidoscope of viewpoints that will expand anyone’s preconceived notion of what Black Theatre is. 21 Black Futures provides a sophisticated showcase of unparalleled historical importance for the talent of Black Canadian theatre artists.


The Death News

written by Amanda Parris, directed by Charles Officer

Season 1 begins with The Death News by Amanda Parris, a model of a short-form play that opens up more questions in its 12 minutes than most plays do in two hours. As a satire it cuts several ways at once yet manages to portray a moving drama, a combination of contrasting tones that few playwright are able to pull off.

It is set in a near future where premature Black death is not just a likelihood but an inevitability. What has changed is that Black people now have the ability to define the stories of their own lives. The significant satirical catch is that Black lives are now memorialized on a hit television show called The Death News whose female host (Lovell Adams-Gray) exudes a perkiness totally out of synch with the content of the show.

The primary focus of the play is the 31-year-old Dante (also Adams-Gray), who struggles to figure out how to look and what to say just before he is set to record his obituary for a future episode. He has been told to use his authentic voice, but he asks himself “What is my authentic voice?” This is a key question that underlies all seven plays of Season 1 of 21 Black Futures and likely underlies all 21. The anthology demonstrates that it is reductive to think there is one authentic Black voice. Rather there is an infinity of authentic voices.

As for Dante, Parris and Adams-Gray portray him as completely ordinary young man who has done nothing special and feels embarrassed that he has to record this lack of accomplishment for eternity. What Dante does find to say is very moving and it is to the credit of Parris, Adams-Gray and director Charles Officer that they are able to switch the tone of the play so decisively away from the satire that precedes Dante’s revelation.

Nevertheless, Parris is unsentimental about Dante’s situation. While she obviously believes that Black people should be remember in their voice, she also decries the horrid current tendency to commodify everything – in this case, even deceased Black people’s obituaries. Parris’s play stands as a warning that even people’s ideals and authentic voices can be misused. The play is so powerful I had to pause for several minutes to take in its implications before I felt ready to move on.


The Sender

written by Cheryl Foggo, directed by Leah-Simone Bowen

The plays of Season 1 have been well-chosen and arranged and the second play, The Sender by Albertan writer Cheryl Foggo, continues the satirical tone of The Death News but in a much lighter vein.

Foggo’s play is also set in a future in which global racism has almost been completely eliminated and has led to a peaceful world. The focus of the action is Cil Brown (Amanda Cordner), who works as a Sender. Brown’s particular job is to arrange for White people who do not fit into the new non-racist world to be sent into exile on White Supremacist Island (WSI). There they will be free of any reminder of Black people from food to music. It does mean they won’t be able to watch sports like basketball or football on television, but they can watch, as Brown cheerily tells a client, lawn bowling, darts and, for now, hockey.

Brown’s main difficulty arises when one of her friends, Britney, interrupts Brown’s sophisticated computer programme to tell Brown she wants to follow the man Brown has just sent to WSI. Brown chastises Britney for her attachment to a White Supremacist and emphasizes that once sent to WSI she cannot return. Brown outlines all the restrictions on WSI will entails, but Britney is deeply in love with the White Supremacist and Brown reluctantly must send her away.

Beside demonstrating how pervasive the influence of Black culture has been on White culture, Foggo’s play also shows that conflicts of conscience can arise even in a supposed new ideal world. Cordner is a genial Sender who barely reveals the disgust she feels in dealing with the White Supremacist. She contrasts this effectively under Leah-Simone Bowen’s direction with the conflict of friendship and duty Brown feels when dealing with Britney’s wayward feelings.  


Jah in the Ever-Expanding Song

written by Kaie Kellough, directed by d’bi young anitafrika

The third entry in the season, Jah in the Ever-Expanding Song, written by Montreal-based sound artist Kaie Kellough, switches from prose and satire to poetry and metaphysics. The play is a multimedia exploration of the nature of selfhood from a Rastafari point of view.

Most people will know that Jah of the title is the Rastafari name for God (a contraction of Jehovah), but they may be puzzled why the main character of the piece is also named Jah. To understand this it is helpful to know that Rastafari, though it used much imagery from Christianity, does not believe in a deus absconditus separate from its creation as do some Christian sects but rather in a deus immanens, a deity inherent in creation. This is notion expressed in the key phrase “I-and-I”, which replaces “we” or “us,” expressing the philosophy that all individuals share a common essence with Jah.

In the context of the play, Jah, a former student radical performed by Ravyn Wngz, a queer, trans and Afro-Indigenous woman, is travelling through the universe inside a dub song, an image of her unity with everything. Using spoken dub poetry, song and dance, Jah the student recreates the moment when she first felt true oneness with Jah the god. This occurred when Jah the student threw red paint on the head of a colonialist statue that she helped to topple. This event is itself symbolic of Rastafari’s toppling of traditional colonializing Christianity in favour of an Afrocentric vision of religious truth.

Jah in the Ever-Expanding Song is the most consciously interdisciplinary of the seven offerings. Under the imaginative direction of d’bi young anitafrika Raven Wngz shows herself expert in all three realms of word, song, dance and the production is enhanced with the most vibrant abstract projections of Cameron Davis and Laura Warren and the most daring videography of Keenan Lynch to be found in the season.


Beyere

written by Shauntay Grant, directed by Lisa Karen Cox

In contrast to the colourful, whirling complexity of Kaie Kellough’s play, Beyere by Nova Scotian Shauntay Grant is beautiful in its utter simplicity. All that we gather from the text of the play itself is that a mother (Natasha “Courage” Bacchus) prepares a meal for her daughter and tries to assure herself that her daughter will carry on the traditions of the Ebanu people of whom they are among the last survivors. The Ebanu are an African-descended people who managed to resist transatlantic slavery. As imagined by Grant, the Ebanu communicate though sign language (in fact, a modified form of American Sign Language). Beyere, we learn, means “hope”, which for the mother means “a name for when you have a daughter”.

In the Director’s Note of Lisa Karen Cox we discover that the year is 2080 and that the mother is called Aodhri and her ten-year-old daughter is Bena. Cox tells us that Aodhri has just received a terminal diagnosis and is thus especially concerned that Benu will help the Ebanu culture to survive. In fact, this specific background is not necessary to appreciate the import of the drama since, after all, we all live with a terminal diagnosis.

Bacchus gives an absolutely stunning performance conveying humility and dignity with an underlying sense of concern. Her signing is extraordinarily elegant and her face so expressive that the subtitles are almost unnecessary. Grant, Cox and Bacchus make us feel keenly the strength and beauty of the Ebanu culture Aodhri represents and the depth of the tragedy should that rich heritage die with her. All in all, Beyere feels like the aesthetic highpoint of Season 1.


Madness with Rocks

written by Peace Akintade, directed by Jamie Robinson

It may have seemed logical to follow one play about the need to pass on an endangered culture with another on the same topic, Madness with Rocks by Peace Akintade, Saskatchewan’s Youth Poet Laureate for 2020-21, but comparison between Akintade’s play and Grant’s Beyere are all in Grant’s favour. Akintade has sought to make the grandest statement about the importance of heritage but in the space of only eleven minutes what she has to say is far too vague.

From the synopsis provided we learn that it’s 100 years in the future and that the last African warrior (Dion Johnstone) has been wandering the barren continent searching for the remains of his tribe. None of this is clear, however, from the text itself. At times Johnstone seems not merely the last African warrior but the last African or even the last Black person alive, due to some unnamed catastrophe. Africa, once lush, is now barren, but why is never explained.

Unlike Kaie Kellough’s dub poetry in Jah, Akintade’s more conventional poetry takes a style of diction where words like “forsook” are not unusual. Her approach can veer from the obscure as in “your tongue is the definition of the phoenix’s throne” to the direct as in “I choose to love my heritage while I am still breathing”. Akintade is also not always in control of her metaphors. She speaks of Africa trying to pull herself from “the quicksand of Blackness” but it is hard to see how that phrase can have a positive meaning. Similarly, the warrior’s single action of moving a rock so that flowers (a symbol for stories) underneath can grow assumes that this radical change in environment will benefit the flowers.

Dion Johnstone is well-known as one of Canada’s finest classical actors. His careful diction draws as much meaning and emotion as possible from Akintade’s text. His performance of the warrior’s gradual shift from despair to hope communicates more in itself than do Akintade’s words.

Whether it is director Jamie Robinson’s idea or not, this piece takes the surprising visual step of turning away from the speaker to survey the vacant seats of the empty theatre where the play is being filmed. This remarkable shot not only sets up the time, place and reason why the play has been written but serves to emphasize the play as a play in a way none of the others pieces dare to do.


Witness Shift

written by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, directed by Sarah Waisvisz

With Donna-Michelle St. Bernard’s Witness Shift, the tone of Season 1 reverts to a form of satire. The period is some time in the near future when the police have been fully defunded. Black people in distress phone emergency services of their own for a wide range of needs from defusing an altercation to finding a lost dog to seeking psychological support after being insulted.

A veteran dispatcher (Ucha Ama) sitting at her computer station leads a rookie through a training day. The fact that the dispatcher is so unrufflable and so instantly adept, including using sign language, at coping with the widest variety of situations is clearly meant both to be humorous and to point to an ideal worth emulating. Ama performs the role of the super-efficient dispatcher with aplomb. In helping the victim of an insult to regain her self-respect, Ama also shows the dispatcher has a compassionate side.

What is especially noteworthy in St. Bernard’s play, however, is the constant refrain from the unseen rookie, “Yeah, but does anything ever change?” What this remark points to is the danger that lies in any period after a war or shift of power where the younger generation has no direct knowledge of the way things used to be and thus no knowledge of the struggle that has led to the present system now so beneficial to them.


Sensitivity

written by Lawrence Hill, directed by Mike Payette

The final show of the seven ends the series on an ironic note. Sensitivity by Lawrence Hill, author of The Book of Negroes (2007), presents us with Gabriaela Monk (Sabryn Rock), a 40-something business professional who just got fired from her long-standing job as the only racial sensitivity trainer at Connect International, one of Canada’s leading dating services. She has been fired “with cause” and been given a large severance cheque to prevent a lawsuit.

Having just missed her GO train back to Hamilton gives Gabriaela the time to meditate aloud on what has brought her to this point. The irony of the piece is that Gabriaela’s greatest conflict is not with the bored White people in her sensitivity training courses but with a Black co-worker who annoys Gabriaela with her superior attitude. While Gabriaela is half-White and half-Black, her Barbadian co-worker feels superior because she is not a “half-and-half” but all Black. She also also looks down on Gabriaela for not have attained a higher educational degree. It is taunting from this co-worker that causes Gabriaela to lash out, not the best strategy for a sensitivity trainer.

While Hill portrays Gabriaela’s anger primarily in a humorous light, his deeper point is that as long as their are hierarchies, such as that running the dating service, there will be people who use their place in the hierarchy to feel superior to those below them.

The piece is a fine showcase for Rock’s acting abilities since in the short space of 10 1/2 minutes she impersonates at least seven characters including her wise mother and her annoying co-worker. Under Mike Payette’s taut direction Rock also wins us to her side as Gabriaela fights her way from frustration with the system to finally declaring her freedom from it.


With these seven fascinating monodramas, 21 Black Futures is off to an exciting start.

Season 2 begins February 19 and Season 3 begins February 26. Watch on gem.cbc.ca.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Lovell Adams-Gray in The Death News. © 2021 Keenan Lynch.