I know it’s autumn, because lots of great theatre has been happening around me. I was recently in Big London and saw the hands-up-incredible (student!) production The Fall, as well as the incredibly moving The Unknown Island (which my colleague Dan Rebellato and I discuss in an upcoming episode of his podcast, Stage Directions – stay tuned for that one). Back home in Ontario I caught The Komagata Maru Incident at the Stratford Festival, thought-provokingly directed by Keira Loughran, and, last Sunday, Other Side of the Game by Amanda Parris, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams in an Obsidian Theatre/Cahoots Theatre co-production.
These last two shows were remarkable for me in the way they normalized the practice of diversity on stage – something I’ve been thinking a lot about since the “Post-Marginal” symposium I attended back in April (read my thoughts on that event here).
Canadians are used to “diversity” as a brand – part of the hip and multicultural, Justin-fronted salad-bowl nation. Yay Canada! Except maybe less yay Canada if you are, you know, a visible, ethnic, or other minority (including those who identify as disabled) and are constantly on the receiving end of subtle or not-so-subtle discrimination, well-meaning but superficial curiosity that borders on harassment, or, in more cases than we care to acknowledge, gruesome racial profiling.
Justin hearts diversity. But it’s really not that easy, people.
All the more reason to get over talking about diversity as “a good thing” (says the brilliant Donna-Michelle St Bernard, someone I never tire of quoting), and to start thinking about it as a practice – an artistic practice, an intellectual practice, a pedagogical practice, and a practice of ordinary citizenship.
But how do we do that, really do that?
How can artists, scholars, and teachers model diversity-as-practice for others, as a necessary public good?
These two shows struck me as just such models. But then they also, inevitably, got me fretting about how to talk about them effectively as such. To communicate this modelling of diversity-in-practice as central to what they do, accomplish, offer to the public sphere.
That’s separate, a very separate, issue from whether or not they are any “good” as pieces of theatre.
[And btw, I think they both really are.]
This is all a slightly roundabout way of saying that these two productions got me fretting about theatre reviews – and in particular about the kinds of power reviewers wield, for better and sometimes for worse, as they more or less just do their jobs.
Reviewing is hard; I know this from personal experience. It’s a huge responsibility, and the reviewers I know (including for the major Toronto dailies) take that responsibility very seriously indeed.
But reviews as a genre embed some big problems. For me, the largest one is this: they are required to level judgement every time, but they are not typically flexible enough to unpack the question that ghosts that very quotidian act of judgement:
Who has the authority to decide what is “good” theatre?
What are our criteria, and why?
I was really upset to read the reviews for Komagata Maru Incident. Some of them very correctly pointed out that the play itself – which was written decades ago, and is about a boat full of Sikh migrants turned away from the shores of British Columbia in 1914 – comes from a settler perspective (that of white playwright Sharon Pollock), and lacks the capacity in its dramaturgical structure to represent refugee experience in a thoroughgoing way. Others, however, were unnecessarily rough on Loughran and her team. One was truly mean, and bordered, in my opinion, on an abuse of the reviewer’s power.
Why did these harsh reviews drive me around the bend? Because what Loughran had done in her direction of Pollock’s play was infuse it with an ethos of inclusivity and diversity, in an effort to decolonize the problematic script.
Quelemia Sparrow in The Komagata Maru Incident, Stratford, 2017
The production was far from perfect, in lots of ways the reviews captured. But it was also incredibly important as a piece of public engagement – and this the reviews either downplayed or missed.
Loughran’s cast were, in the vast majority, actors of colour. Her emcee/narrator figure was the stunningly talented Musqueam artist Quelemia Sparrow, whose evocative physicality contributed to a useful distancing of the play’s central voice of authority from its governing settler imagination. Sparrow played the role as a “traditional” (read “imaginary”) Indian figure overtly costumed as a British officer; the only authority she therefore inhabited was performative, the ability to talk herself into authority – as all imperialists do. (There’s a quite good reflection piece on this casting choice in the London Free Press; click here to take a look.)
The “real” officer figure in the play, the Immigration Department’s Hopkinson, was embodied with studied, well judged awkwardness by Omar Alex Khan, who is also not white and not British; as he and Sparrow interacted (she inhabiting the role of his superiors in these meetings) I saw and heard “Britishness” as an effect of settler colonialism, loud and clear.
Meanwhile, the most moving relationship in the play developed between Diana Tso and Jasmine Chen playing ambitious immigrant women in a Vancouver brothel. There were moments when I wondered if Chen, Tso, and Loughran had layered lesbian desire into these portrayals, and I was grateful for the prompt to think differently about what could otherwise seem conventionally sexualized Asian female characters.
Diana Tso, Jasmine Chen, and Omar Alex Khan in The Komagata Maru Incident, 2017
In other words, I saw a lot that was rich and instructive and worth talking about in this show. Stuff that the reviews were not able, given their generic constraints, to capture.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when my friend Keith Tomasek, who edits Stratford Festival Reviews, asked me to review Other Side of the Game, which is about Black lives, and in particular Black women’s lives, historical and contemporary, in Toronto. (And yup, that eponymous reference to the Erykah Badu song of the same name is both intentional and quite perfect.) I recently reviewed For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf for Keith, so Other Side seemed a nice match. When time came to book the tickets I asked, unwittingly, for a preview show (it fit my schedule); Keith then told me I should skip the review (previews are previews for a reason, people) and write a “think piece” about the show instead.
This was totally accidental and yet a perfect gift; I realized after seeing the production that I could do more with/for/alongside what Parris, Williams, and their creative team have done by skipping the inevitable judgement part and reviewing, instead, the process by which we judge theatre in salad-bowl Toronto in 2017. I hope along the way I captured a bit of the diversity-in-practice I saw on stage and caught from Parris’s and Williams’s program notes, as well as from my research.
The gorgeous playbill cover for Other Side of the Game
But you tell me; I welcome your thoughts. Please click through to SFR‘s site here to read my article, and feel free to leave comments in that space or this one.
Certainly, I’ll be aiming to lift more work like this, in this way, up to our view in future “review” commissions. I’ve just seen the superb Asking For It by Ellie Moon at Crow’s Theatre, which could not be more timely in its verbatim excavation of how we talk about consent. It’s a teaching tool if ever there was one: rigorous in its exploration of sexual ambivalence and awkwardness, which makes it, frankly, ideal as a model for figuring out how to navigate the challenging waters of talking to and with young people about sexual safety, comfort, and pleasure. Look forward to a post on that very soon.