Stage Door Review

21 Black Futures, Season 2

Thursday, February 25, 2021

✭✭

conceived by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

Obsidian Theatre Company, Toronto

streaming from February 19, 2021

“I’m not special because I’m Black. I’m special because I’m me” (Special)

The Obsidian Theatre Company’s video play anthology 21 Black Futures continues with seven more fascinating responses to the question posed by Obsidian’s Artistic Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, “What is the future of Blackness?” The sheer variety of tone and genre in this second series of monodramas suggests that the possible number of responses is infinite.


Special

written by Keshia Cheesman, directed by Jay Northcott

The first three plays of the second “season” of 21 Black Futures pictures an ideal future world in which Black people have taken or are about to take control over their lives and how select individuals respond to this experience. Alberta playwright Keshia Cheeseman’s Special focusses on the eight-year-old schoolgirl Zari (Avery Grant).

The year is 2035 and Zari’s parents have moved to Diamond Valley, Alberta, a city founded by Black people for Black people who had become tired of dealing with physical and verbal aggression in multiracial cities.

While the move has made Zari’s parents much more contented, it has made Zari particularly discontented. Zari had been the only Black pupil at her previous school and far from being harassed, she had been extremely popular. Other students admired everything about her – her hair, her style, her dance moves. Now at her new school she is no longer “special”. All the other girls have the same hair, style and moves. Cheesman gives us Zari in an extended nightly prayer to God seeking advice on how to stand out again with the goal of eventually becoming an internet influencer.

When God is silent, Zari makes some hilarious choices until, after stumbling across a letter from her biological father she comes to see that what makes her special is not what is outside but what is inside. This conclusion is one that a viewer could see coming a mile off. Yet, in today’s heated climate about racial identity, Cheesman’s and Zari’s conclusion is not as simple as it might seem at first.

Traditional liberalism has always taken the view that people should first be seen as individuals with attributes such as race, gender or sexuality seen as secondary. Many current academics point out how obvious inequities among people of different races, genders and sexualities demonstrate that the traditional liberal view has led to no improvement.

Cheesman makes Zari’s glorying in her former specialness because she is Black and her present despair at not standing out look comical. But, at the same time, we have to wonder whether Zari comes to value “what’s inside” precisely because she lives in an all-Black community where Blackness is no longer her primary defining attribute.

Jay Northcott directs the piece with a joyful lightness of touch and a clear insight into the comic seriousness of youth. Avery Grant, who appears to be about the same age as her character, has such natural exuberance that you might think she was Zari rather than playing a role.


Umoja Corp.

written by Jacob Sampson, directed by Leighton Alexander Williams

The following play, Umoja Corp., by Nova Scotian Jacob Sampson shifts us abruptly from the cozy surroundings of young girl’s bedroom to the harshness of a prison cell. Here we meet Adrian Joy Ellis (Pablo Ogunlesi), who has been arrested for fraud and identity theft. Adrian had continued to collect his adoptive mother’s pension cheque after her death with the hope of using the money to further his education as his adoptive mother had wanted. The male prosecuting lawyer (also Ogunlesi) recommends that Adrian accept a plea deal of eight years in prison and a $5000 fine.

Much to Adrian’s surprise a female lawyer (also Ogunlesi) from a corporation he had never heard of appears in order to defend him. She argues for his release and a minimal fine. The female lawyer is from Umoja Corp. In an early flashback we learn a fact, unknown to Adrian, that when his parents abandoned him his care, upbringing and placement with a family were all automatically taken on by Umoja Corp.

Umoja Corp. uses capitalist systems to amass wealth and power not to suppress Black people but rather to uplift them and further their causes. “Umoja” means “unity” or “togetherness” in Swahili and was the name of a survey of Black South African culture that toured to Toronto in 2005. It is also the motto of an American Blacks-only bank in the US that may be the inspiration for Sampson’s far more expansive corporation. Earlier Adrian had asked, “Why is there no caregiver for people like us?” In Sampson’s idealist vision of the future there is just a caregiver.

Under Leighton Alexander Williams’s taut direction UK-born Nigerian-Canadian Pablo Ogunlesi gives a wonderfully engaging performance. As Adrian he is very sympathetic as a young man who knows he has ruined his life. He well contrasts the hopeful Adrian of the flashback scenes with the despairing Adrian we first meet. He is all too realistic as the unprepared prosecuting attorney who knows Adrian only from a quick glance through his file. He is so convincing as the delightfully self-assured female Umoja Corp. lawyer, he had me thinking the show had actually added a second actor. Umoja Corp. may have a fairy-tale ending but it points the way toward a real possibility for change.


Notice

written by Luke Reece, directed by Ngozi Paul

Notice by Luke Reece is also a fairy-tale with social commentary set in the future, though it is the first play in the Black Futures series to be specifically rooted in the  events of 2020. Reece introduces us to Crystal Hinds (Lisa Berry), clearly a businesswoman dressed for success. Reece’s play is Crystal’s speech to an unseen group. Who that group is and what she has to tell them is the punchline of the show.

To explain to the group she has arrived at the present moment, Crystal takes us to 2020, now 25 years in the past. As a twelve-year-old she loved basketball despite having two non-sports-loving parents – her father a candle-maker and her mother a policewoman. What affected Crystal most in 2020 was not just the pandemic but the worldwide protests against White police-attacks on Black people. She tells us she was particularly affected when NBA teams went on strike on August 26 to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, three days earlier. Yet a few days later the games resumed after the leagues and teams pledged funds to social justice initiatives. At that time the NBA was 81.1% Black, but all the power was held by the owners who were overwhelmingly White.

Crystal comes to excel in her sport and gain the support of her parents. But as her father knows, she has always had something bigger in mind. When we meet her she has become the NBA Deputy Commissioner. She is holding the meeting we see her introduce on June 19, 2045 – 180 years since slavery abolished in the US. She has done this because she has put in motion a plan to redress the racial imbalance of owners to players.

Unlike the plays up to now, Reece’s Notice is a straightforward speech presented as a speech, and Berry is eloquent and forceful in the delivery of that speech. Though supremely confident now, Berry allows Crystal to show emotion imbuing her account of the past. The number of NBA teams with non-White owners increased to three in September 2019. For Crystal that is just the start.


Blackberries

written by Miali-Elise Coley-Sudlovenick, directed by Alicia K. Harris

The next two plays in Season 2 have very little to do with the question, “What is the future of Blackness?” In completely different ways both focus on Black individuals who are on the verge of seeing themselves in a new way because of the presence of a previously unknown or under-appreciated Other.

The first of the two, Blackberries, written by Inuk-Jamaican Miali-Elise Coley-Sudlovenick, presents us with a character, Effie Andoh (Adeline Bird), with a background very much like her own. The father of both the author and the character is a Black man who has once lived in Nunavut and the mother in both cases is the Inuit woman he married. The key difference is that Coley-Sudlovenick grew up in Nunavut and only later visited her father natal country whereas the character Effie has grown up in B.C. and is now visiting Nunavut for the first time.

Effie has travelled to Nunavut to attend her grandmother’s funeral, a funeral that Effie’s mother has chosen not to attend. When we meet her Effie has been in Nunavut for two weeks and has become friends with her cousin Tia. They two have decided to pick what Tia calls “blackberries” but which Effie tells her are called “crowberries” in B.C.

Experiencing life in Nunavut for the first time and hearing her relatives speak Inuktitut has made Effie realize that there is a whole side to herself that she has so far ignored. She says her mother never speaks of Nunavut, but we never learn why. In fact, for such an uncomplicated scenario, Coley-Sudlovenick raises several questions that remain unanswered. Effie claims suddenly to know why her mother did not want to attend the funeral, but Coley-Sudlovenick has not given us enough information to know why. Did Effie’s mother’s relatives disapprove of her marriage? Did she not want to return to Nunavut because she knew she would never want to leave again? Knowing the answers would help us understand more about Effie’s background and about Effie.

Blackness only comes up when Effie muses, “I used to think it was just us Black people who lived unseen, unheard. But even the people who were here first?” This remark reflects not only the erasure from history of both races, but reminds us that Black people, no matter how they arrived in Canada, by force or through choice, are also settlers.

Adeline Bird, a Winnipeg-based Afro-Indigenous filmmaker and producer, acts with unforced naturalness. The way her face glows with wonder as Effie takes in the beauty of the North says more about the transformation occurring within Effie as she feels the lost half of herself illuminated than anything in Coley-Sudlovenick’s text.

Many people will not have thought of African-Inuk people as a possibility. That signals a lack of historical knowledge. African-American Matthew Henson (1866-1955) was known as the first man to reach the geographic North Pole, a non-Inuit unusually skilled in driving the dog sleds the Inuit way and the father of several children by his Inuit “country wife” Akatingwah.


Emmett

written by Syrus Marcus Ware, directed by Tanisha Taitt

In contrast to the idyllic setting of Blackberries, Syrus Marcus Ware’s Emmett is set in post-apocalyptic Toronto. As we learn from the sole character Medgar (Prince Amponsah), it is seven years since a combined ecological and medical catastrophe known as the Fall. Global warming has caused so much ice to melt that flooding has occurred around the world. The Don and Humber Rivers have flooded and Lake Ontario has expanded so that Toronto is now a narrow peninsula jutting into what is now called the Great Ontario Sea. At the same time the world was visited by a series of increasingly deadly pandemics. The one associated with the Fall wiped out most of Earth’s human population. A lethal form of avian flu has killed off all bird life.

We meet Medgar as he gathers various objects from the new forest floor that he uses to commemorate the anniversary of the Fall and the death of his lover Emmett. He is wandering near what was Eglington Avenue where he and Emmett had lived, a place that now is along the seashore.

We don’t know it until the end, but Medgar is not speaking aloud to himself but is making a recording to document the times and his love. He is doing this because on this day Earth is scheduled to be contacted by intelligent life on Venus, being now ready to make themselves known.

Unusually for 21 Black Futures, but like Blackberries, Blackness itself is not the central issue. As Syrus Marcus Ware depicts it, it has taken an horrific disaster for the surviving people of Earth finally to pull together and to realize that what they share is still being alive is more important than what previously divided them. The advent of beings from Venus forces these surviving human beings to have to think of themselves one united species facing another.

Set and costume designer Rachel Forbes, lighting designer Shawn Henry and projection designers Cameron Davis and Laura Warren have done extraordinary work in creating the strange atmosphere of Medgar’s world that eerily evoked devastation as well as new growth.

Sensitively directed by Tanisha Taitt, the current Artistic Director of Cahoots Theatre, Prince Amponsah gives a beautifully empathetic performance that gives the impression of a man wearied with the pain of loss and almost afraid to acknowledge that he has grown used to his new world, one, that to his combined hope and dismay, is about to become even stranger. Ware gives us the uncomfortable feeling that with the concurrence of the pandemic, physical isolation and climate change we are now experiencing a taste of the future.


Georgeena

written by Djanet Sears, directed by Weyni Mengesha

Georgeena by Djanet Sears does not so much answer the 21 Black Futures’ question, “What is the future of Blackness?” as it portrays what the complex present day of Blackness is. Georgeena looks to the future only insofar as it takes place in a time when the pandemic has receded and large weddings are possible again.

It starts with Georgeena (Virgilia Griffith) in a wedding dress speeding down a highway and worried about the car in her rear-view mirror that seems to be following her and about her cellphone’s constant ringing.

We learn as Georgeena speaks her thoughts aloud that she is fleeing a long-planned wedding with her fiancé Mathiew [sic]. What Georgeena realized at her wedding rehearsal was that she and Mathiew were going to be the only Black people at her wedding. Both she and her fiancé had been orphans and both had been adopted by White families.

Arguments at the wedding rehearsal have opened Georgeena’s eyes to what her future White in-laws are really like. Mathiew’s best man drives a truck with the bumper sticker “Take Canada Back” on it. Mathiew’s relatives make excuses for the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by White police. When Georgeena suggests with the example of Trayvon Martin that White racism goes beyond the police, her future mother-in-law says that scruffy dogs don’t get a much respect as well-groomed dogs. (We do have to wonder why such virulently racist family would have adopted a Black orphan.) When Mathiew does nothing to criticize his family’s remarks or to defend Georgeena, she realizes a future life with him is impossible.

As directed by Weyni Mengesha, Artistic Director of Soulpepper, Georgeena comes off as the most dramatic, most tightly written of the plays in Season 2. The image of Georgeena attempting to control her speeding car while also attempting to control her seething emotions gives the play a heightened tension that never lets up. Virgilia Griffith, who is in unremitting close-up throughout, gives a supremely powerful performance —a sympathetic, finely detailed depiction of Georgeena’s inner turmoil as feelings of loss, outrage, betrayal and fear surge through her mind.


Rebirth of the Afronauts: A Black Space Odyssey

written by Motion, directed by Jerome Kruin

The final show of seven adds surrealism to the wide range of styles in 21 Black Futures. Rebirth of the Afronauts: A Black Space Odyssey by screenwriter, playwright, poet and emcee Motion, is the first glimpse of Afrofuturist film that most will have experienced since the superhero movie Black Panther (2018).

Rather than a tighten woven plot, Motion has given us a dreamlike series of forceful images and situations which may be intended as real or metaphorical or both. It is New Year’s Eve 2059, the night before the long-awaited Reparations Day. the main character Chariott (Chelsea Russell) is brought out of what seems cryogenic suspension because she is urgently needed on Mars.

When Chariott speaks to us she says she was “frozen” only in that she had no prospects for work or life. In her quest to reach a location she does not know, she rejects the offer of a taxi and takes a bus so crowded that she is forced to sit in the very back. There she sits next to a mysterious old woman who tells her the bus is taking them to the border. But what border does she mean? When police board the bus, the old woman tells Chariott to run. Where she does not know, but it so happens that she has chosen precisely the right direction because a strange young woman in a hood meets her who guides her to the launch pad.

Of the 14 plays so far in 21 Black Futures, Rebirth of the Afronauts is by far the most cinematic. In his Director’s Note Jerome Kruin refers to the play as a “film” and he has the designers and technical crew use a wide array of special effects and still and moving projections to highlight the piece’s mixture of symbol and sci-fi.

Chelsea Russell’s Chariott is very much like a futuristic Black Alice who has fallen through the looking-glass into a strange new world that is both dangerous and exciting. She instantly gains our allegiance as she tries in vain to understand what is happening around her. Russell also plays four other characters who could hardly be more diverse. The two most memorable are the old woman on the bus who wears an African headscarf but speaks in a farmland Southern Ontario accent and the elegant host on BlackSpaceX radio that Chariott listens to and that seems to be giving her secret clues through its music and commentary.

Rebirth of the Afronauts is a real ride. It may not by rationally analyzable but it does suggest that even in the future, even when Reparations Day is about to dawn, Black people may have to flee across a border to find freedom.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Avery Grant in Special. © 2021 Keenan Lynch.

Season 1 began February 12 and Season 3 begins February 26. Watch on gem.cbc.ca.