Stage Door Review

21 Black Futures, Season 3

Friday, March 12, 2021

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conceived by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

Obsidian Theatre Company, Toronto

Streaming from February 26, 2021

“You cannot make me regret this rage” (Cavities)

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.


Cavities

written by K.P. Dennis, directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu

The first three plays of the third “season” of 21 Black Futures are each written in various modes of poetic discourse. The first of this group is Cavities by BC playwright, K.P. Dennis and directed by Obsidian Theatre Artistic Director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, who conceived the whole 21 Black Futures project. Cavities deals with the idea of “futures” in the most general way. It is set in a mythological zone that seems to be outside of time and space.

It follows a character known only as the Ancestor (Alison Sealy-Smith) as she wanders a parched landscape overhung with dark rapidly moving clouds. Projection designers Cameron Davis and Laura Warren and sound designer DJ Loqenz have made this scene look as threatening as possible as lightning and thunder punctuate the Ancestor’s meditations.

The Ancestor is planting teeth in the earth, symbolic of the qualities she wishes to pass on to the next generation. The Ancestor begins her task filled with rage at how nothing has changed for her people in millennia and initially all she can think of passing on to the future generation is rage. Yet, as the Ancestor reasons with herself she comes to see that what she really wishes for those who will follow is peace and joy. Nature seems to agree and blesses her change of view with a downpour of rain.

K.P. Dennis has given us a symbolic setting, a symbolic character and a symbolic action all couched in an intense, image-filled language. It is wonderful to see Alison Sealy-Smith acting again after ten years and it is her performance that gives reality and emotion to Dennis’s largely allegorical tale. She speaks the verse beautifully and brings out the drama inherent in the Ancestor’s mental struggle to overcome anger to see clearly. She makes the moment electrifying when the Ancestor realizes what it really is that she should wish for the future. As director Otu has insured that this is a powerful work with a close integration of the verbal and the visual.


40 Parsecs and Some Fuel

written by Omari Newton, directed by Lucius Dechausay 

In contrast to the very literary poetry of K.P. Dennis in Cavities, Omari Newton, also from B.C., has written his monodrama in full hip-hop style with a steady beat and a cascade of ingenious rhymes. His piece, 40 Parsecs and Some Fuel, is set at a space launch site in the year 2050.

Chief engineer Satchel Dew (Daniel Faraldo aka Dan-e-o) has developed a spaceship that can carry passengers to far-off solar systems. Once he discovers that the military has less than peaceful plans for his work, he decides to commandeer one of his ships and set a course to a planet where Black people can flourish. Much of his monologue is his attempt to convince two co-workers of the necessity of his plan. He says, “Racial integration of nations is an experiment that’s failed”.

The one Black activist he cites is Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), a Black nationalist and supporter of the Back-to-Africa movement that sought to send Black Americans back to their home in Africa, specifically Liberia. Newton does not mention that the Back-to-Africa movement was a failure. A further unmentioned irony is that Liberia, the only African country never to be colonized by Europeans, was established in 1821 as a home for freed American slaves by the American Colonization Society, a group dominated by White abolitionists who believed that Black people could never be integrated into White society.

Nevertheless, if we regard 40 Parsecs as a sci-fi fantasy, it does count as a possible “future of Blackness” as per the terms of Otu’s request for plays. As such it is likely to promote much debate since the clash between integration versus separation is as old as the conflict between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcom X.

Daniel Faraldo is a charismatic performer and shoots off Newton’s rhymes as if it were second nature. His argument that we designed the ship, we have the power, let’s use it for ourselves, is hard to resist. Mewton and Faraldo are so persuasive that only when the play has ended do we remember that throughout history unanimity of race has never been a guarantee against internecine strife.


The Prescription

written by Lisa Codrington, directed by Alison Duke

Lisa Codrington has written her play The Prescription in prose that frequently rises to the level of rhymed poetry. Like 40 Parsecs it is set at a specific date in the future and deals with a technological advance. But here, rather than believing that this advance can be used to help Black people, the protagonist wonders if it is some kind of ruse.

It is 2042 and Chantal Thompson (Akosua Amo-Adem), aged 30, has been chosen as the first recipient for a trial of the drug called “Open Your Big Black Mouth”. As the Director’s Note from Alison Duke tells us, “The technology is marketed as the cure for chronic depression and anxiety in Black people overwhelmed by everyday micro-aggressions, oppression and anti-Black racism. Never before has a Black woman been given the space to say what’s on her mind and not have to deal with white fragility”.

Despite this, Chantal is sceptical. When she has spoken to the drug’s marketing officers, her description of her life as a Black woman has literally blown their minds, i.e. their heads have blown up. Chantal wonders with some justification how her taking a pill will prevent is negative effect, unless the pill actually softens what she says without her realizing it.

This set-up would seem to be wholly satirical. Yet, whether is is Codrington’s choice or Duke’s, Chantal’s rant about the drug is intercut with projections of historical scenes of riots and vintage portraits of inhabitants of Africville, Nova Scotia. Whatever acidic humour could be mined from Codrington’s text is thus muted by illustrating the long history of racial injustice in Canada. The tone thus teeters unresolved between the satiric and the serious.

Amo-Adem projects this duality of tone in a good way. On the one hand she is a feisty young woman ready to mock such a simplistic solution to such an age-old problem. On the other hand, Amo-Adem shows that Chantal’s real desire to be heard is undercut by her fear that this is yet another false hope. As Chantal says switching into rhyme, “It’s hard to alter your route when you are filled to the brim with doubt”. As in the previous two entries in Season 3, it is the performer’s intensity that makes an otherwise abstract protagonist feel real.


Chronologie

written by Stephie Mazunya, directed by Katia Café-Fébrissy, filmed by Mike Payette

The next two plays in Season 3 focus on Black Canadians whose parents have recently immigrated to Canada from Africa. As a result they find themselves torn between the country where they now live and the country their parents are from.

The first of the two, Chronologie by Montreal playwright  Stephie Mazunya, is the only play in Black Futures to be performed in French (with English subtitles). Since Montreal has a higher proportion of Black residents than does Toronto (10.3% to 8.9%) and Quebec the second highest number after Ontario (243,625 to 539,205 as of 2011), Black Futures could probably have included more than one play in French. Yet, even so, it is good to have this particular play since it is one of the most solidly written pieces of the twenty-one.

Though called Chronologie the play might more aptly be titled Géographie since it concerns the importance of place more than the importance of time. It begins with the central character Muco (Sheila Ingabire-Isaro in a deeply sympathetic performance) pondering the simple question she has just heard “Where are you from?” White people are asked this only if they have an accent, but Black people commonly receive this question whether they do or do not. The assumption concerning a Black person in Quebec is that they must be from somewhere else even though, in Muco’s case, she was born in Quebec.

The genius of Mazunya’s play is how she examines the question and what it means to Muco from a dizzying variety of angles. Muco’s mother immigrated to Quebec from Burundi, a country most Canadians would be hard pressed to locate on a map. A country, Muco knows, that many people confuse with neighbouring Rwanda. Muco understands why her mother would teach her Kirundi before teaching her French. Yet, she sees a paradox in her mother viewing Burundi as her homeland when it is a homeland she deliberately rejected because of the strife during the Burundian Civil War during which 300,000 were killed. To say one is Burundian is not enough since the country is split between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups.

Muco herself finds her homeland in literature and is delighted when she meets a boy who knows who Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) is and has heard of the book Americanah (2013) by Nigerian-American Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, that deals with the same sense of rootlessness she feels. Muco admits she identifies with characters in novels by European authors such as the character Gregor Samsa in Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (1915) whose family regard him literally as a cockroach.

Mazunya’s wide-ranging meditation even leads Muco to wonder about the Canadians’ own identity crisis as evidenced by their Americocentric preoccupations. Mazunya has Muco ask the non-politically correct question of what police brutality against Blacks in the US has to do with her. Mazunya has the question “Where are you from?” expand from a Black-specific question to a generally existential one where the place where we are from is the place we choose.


Yɛn Ara Asaase Ni/This Is Our Own Native Land

written by Tawiah M’Carthy, directed by Dorothy A. Atabong

Unlike Mazunya’s tightly focussed play, Tawiah M’Carthy’s Yɛn Ara Asaase Ni/This Is Our Own Native Land tries to take on too many disparate topics in its short running time. Chronologie and Yɛn Ara Asaase Ni both feature young protagonists drawn to the African homeland of their parents. In Chronologie the protagonist was born in Canada, but in Yɛn Ara Asaase Ni the young male protagonist (Peter Fernandes in a very strong performance) was born in Ghana and immigrated to Canada with his parents.

Initially, M’Carthy’s play seems as if it will concentrate on the complex identity of the young Black man at its centre. He tells us, or really himself, about the mixed race of his parents who married in 2028. His mother is half Chinese and half Ghanaian while his father is half British and half Ghanaian. Thus, in the young man’s mind, he is half Ghanaian.

This introduction leads us to think M’Carthy will explore the complexity of the young man’s background and its relation to his new homeland of Canada, but that is not what occurs. Instead, M’Carthy switches to the history of the colonial exploitation of Ghana. In the 19th century the British wrested control over the country from the other European countries that preceded it. M’Carthy gives Fernandes a fine chance to do a humorous caricature of a British officer.

M’Carthy then changes to the story of a Chinese entrepreneur who invests heavily in Ghana, constructing needed aspects of infrastructure, while stripping the country of his mineral wealth. It’s clear that M’Carthy regards this calculated construction and unrepayable indebtedness as just a newer form of colonialism.

The young protagonist’s connection with this entrepreneur is that his Ghanaian grandmother (whom Fernandes also impersonates) married him in order to keep Ghana in some small control of its own land.

The nominal central story is of our protagonist returning to Ghana in to claim his inheritance after his grandmother has died. He has a choice between land and money and chooses money.

The year is 2080 and race wars have broken out in North America. With his money our protagonist has decided to lead a ship carrying 500,000 refugees from New York to Osu, off the coast of Ghana. The obvious irony is that is is a reversal of transatlantic slavery, here where Black people to free themselves from strife sail back to Africa. The problem is that Ghana will not allow the ship to dock.

The refusal of the refugee ship leads the young protagonist to exclaim, “If not now, when?”, a citation of the famous question of Hillel the Elder (110BC-10AD). It’s too bad M’Carthy does explore the full quotation – “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being only for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?” – a remark that could usefully have aided M’Carthy’s theme of identity.

The title of M’Carthy’s play is the Twi version of the unofficial Ghanaian national anthem with a stern text by Ephraim Amu:  “Whether or not this nation prospers!; /Clearly depends on the character of the citizens of the nation”. This, too, M’Carthy could also have further explored. As it is M’Carthy’s play has surveyed several important topics without fully relating them to each other.


Builders of Nations

written by Joseph Jomo Pierre, directed by Kimberley Rampersad

The final two plays of 21 Black Futures take place after a major cataclysm has destroyed most or all of human life. As is fitting for a series of dramas embodying different possibilities, the two present opposite points of view.

Builders of Nations by Joseph Jomo Pierre takes place in 2108 and focusses on Hussein (Philip Akin), a 100-year-old sculptor and the last man on earth. Hussein was conceived on November 4, 2008, now called Obama Night, the date the United States elected its first Black president. Hussein has lived long enough to see civilizations crumble which he blamed on mankind’s imperfections. He asks God why he spent only one day creating man when he could have toiled until the pinnacle of creation was perfect: “We were never perfect no one said you had to stop chipping away”.

Hussein himself has been toiling for 20 years on a sculpture which despite his chiselling still looks like an untouched hunk of rock. As he works he speaks to his son Amiri, a habit he acquired even before Amiri was born premature and stillborn. He had hoped that Amiri would be the “perfect lifelong companion, a better me”, but instead, after his wife’s death, all he has are his dreams of what could have been.

The main flaw of Builders of Nations is its surprise conclusion that seems to run contrary to what Hussein has just said, namely, “I was meant to write the epilogue, the part of the history the victor gets to tell”. Since Hussein is the only man left alive, isn’t his mere survival a form of victory?

In any case, it is a pleasure to see Philip Akin, the AD of Obsidian Theatre before Otu, on stage again if only virtually. He has lost none of his power and complexity and none of his fine clarity of delivery. If the conclusion doesn’t work, it is not his fault and up until that moment it is joy simply to see him embody so fascinating a character as Hussein.


Omega Child

written by Cherissa Richards, directed by ahdri zhini mandiela

The final show of 21 Black Futures moves fully into sci-fi mode but leaves us with a more hopeful vision of the post-apocalyptic future than does Builders of Nations. Omega Child by Manitoba playwright Cherissa Richards takes as its American reference point not the 44th US President but the 45th, referred to in the play as Agent 45.

Apparently, Agent 45 in a major tantrum during the culture wars of 2020, literally took the nuclear option and pressed the legendary red button. This started a nuclear war that wiped out all life on the surface of the earth except for a group of Black fighters who during the race riots had found a way to live underground.

As if atomic radiation were not enough of a disincentive to return to the earth’s surface, Richards tells us that aliens had been waiting for humankind to destroy itself so it could take over our somehow still-prized planet.

At the time of the play’s action, enough time has passed that the underground civilization thinks it is time to send someone, the Omega Child, to the surface to see it has at last become habitable. The play simply fills us in on this past history and shows us what the ten-year-old Child (Emerjade Simms) discovers.

Though Simms well communicates the Child’s apprehension and wonder, it does jar a bit after Avery Grant’s performance in Special of Season 2, to have an adult playing a child rather than an actual child. The play itself would be much stronger if Richards had omitted any mention of aliens. Humankind destroying itself is a powerful enough theme, especially since Richards can’t give aliens the new role of the Other as Syrus Marcus Ware does in the play Emmett.

The Child only presumes that the aliens have left Earth for elsewhere, but has no proof. This severely undercuts the upbeat ending that Richards gives.

Especially noteworthy in Omega Child is the creativity of  the projections of Cameron Davis and Laura Warren and the lighting of Shawn Henry. The Child only knows about what the world used to be like from the stories her relatives have told her. When she emerges on the surface, Davis and Warren project images like those that a child might draw after hearing such stories. Director ahdri zhini mandiela has the Child first see these innocent crayon-coloured images on the surface before they fade to reveal the decaying grey reality beneath - everywhere except in one tiny patch of earth pin-spotted by Henry where there seems to be a sign of hope that nature will return.


The three “seasons” of 21 Black Futures not only have given the wider world a glimpse of the future of Blackness from 21 different angles but have also demonstrated unlike any previous theatre-for-video plays I have seen that such a genre can succeed. Some people will remember that when television was new, the idea of the television play arose giving us such prestigious series as Playhouse 90 (1956-60) in the US and Play for Today (1970-84) in the UK.

21 Black Futures, so groundbreaking in so many ways, is also innovative in finding exactly the right right balance between the theatrical and the cinematic so that each enhances the other. Cuts, freeze frames, interposed stills, varied camera angles are all used to enhance the text without undermining the play’s fundamentally theatrical nature.

The writing, acting and direction of so many of these plays is so good that they will likely serve as calling cards for the participants in years to come. Indeed, the entire series serves as a supremely impressive calling card for Black Canadian theatre-makers to the rest of the world.

Season 1 began February 12 and Season 2 began February 19. 21 Black Futures is set for an open run on CBC Gem (gem.cbc.ca).

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Alison Sealy-Smith in Cavities. © 2021 Keenan Lynch.