Black masculinity explored in artistic creations
By Neil Armstrong
A few weeks ago, I sent an email to some friends encouraging them to see the Barry Jenkins’ film, Moonlight, and the plays, “Secrets of a Black Boy” and “Black Boys.”
It seemed to me that over the past few months that has been a lot of focus through the arts on black men in the aforementioned productions and more.
In September, CaribbeanTales International Film Festival, in collaboration with Black Daddies Club and Black in Canada, presented #BlackLoveMatters, an international film contest for short films which address black masculinity and black love.
“Not enough films are created with fully developed, authentic portrayals of the diverse experiences of Black Love,” says the write-up in the festival program.
“This challenge was inspired in collaboration with the Black Daddies Club and was designed to provide a platform for narratives of Black Men, Black Love, and Black Masculinity, in all of their many forms,” it continued.
The theme of this year’s festival was: “Caribbean Love: Our Love. Our Life. Our Festival.”
At about the same time, the Barry Jenkins’ film, Moonlight, had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and the reviews were full of praise. In many ways, the film fulfills what #BlackLoveMatters seeks to do.
Moonlight is the tender, heartbreaking story of a young black man’s struggle to find himself, told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain and beauty of falling in love, while grappling with his own sexuality.
Many who have seen it are impressed with the humanity with which Jenkins presents the story of this black man against a backdrop of living in Miami during the drug wars.
Jenkins’ use of images, silence, the camera’s gentle approach, the multidimensional characters, the cinematography, and the black male as being vulnerable but having the capacity to love (even as a drug dealer who is kind to a little boy and teaches him confidence) are all things worthy of praise.
Moonlight opened in theatres in Toronto on October 28 and will run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox until January 2017.
On November 11 – Remembrance Day – I’m sitting in Theatre Passe Muraille with a couple friends at the opening night of the play, “Secrets of a Black Boy,” written by Darren Anthony and directed by Kimahli Powell. The play runs until November 20.
My two friends had seen the play when it was first staged ten years ago at the Harbourfront Centre and when it was remounted in 2009 at the Danforth Music Hall. I had only seen it ten years ago so I was looking forward to see how much it had changed from what I recalled.
This dramedy gives voice to five young black men from Toronto as they come together for one last domino game at their local community centre before its permanent closure.
The revitalization of their neighbourhood has displaced thousands of people and, in many ways, the camaraderie of these friends helps to buffer them against the turmoil of change and uncertainty in their community.
Through a series of compelling monologues and narratives, mixed with musical interludes, the play critically explores the underlying effects of common stereotypes faced by racialized men.
It delves into several controversial issues including police brutality and injustice, mental health, domestic abuse, infidelity, interracial dating, and sexuality.
The opening scene of Sheldon played by spoken word artist, Al St. Louis, as a regal figure and soon shackled and assaulted by authority figures – signifying the slavemasters’ treatment of their chattel (slaves), the colonizer and the colonized, or the police assault of black men – seems the precursor of what unfolds thereafter.
All of these men seem confident and are steeped in machismo but through the narratives they tease out monologues giving an insight into each character and their vulnerability.
We meet a young man, Biscuit, played by Samson Brown, who is defined by his sexual prowess – they all are, in fact – a character whose brother dies as a result of gun violence, one with mental health issues, another dealing with parental abuse and becoming an abuser himself to his partner, the choice to date white women while denigrating black women, same-gender love, and the effects of the policing of black male bodies.
Sheldon seems to be the glue that holds this clique together. Indeed, he is the one who seems the be the seasoned voice of reason, one who although he encountered police brutality and injustice in full view of his young son still wants to become a police officer to protect the community.
It is Sheldon who declares that, “we are here,” followed by the others in chorus in answer to a voice, presumably that of a construction worker, asking if anyone was in the soon-to-be demolished community centre.
Biscuit is the young and impressionable man who all the older men take under their guidance, introducing him to soul music, something different from his regular listening pleasure.
Julien Hyacinthe as Sean defends the reason he dates interracially, and doubles as another character who eventually commits suicide as a result of dealing with mental health issues and being raised in a family afraid of the stigma associated with it.
Jerome, played by Mark Sparks, reveals his infidelity in his relationship and also later draws us into the issue of domestic violence, confronting the belief that, “love hurts.”
He had an abusive father, seeks to escape and protect himself and his sister, and later becomes an abusive partner to his girlfriend.
The issue of father love is an issue that bell hooks, African American cultural critic, feminist theorist, scholar and writer, explores in her book, “Salvation: Black People and Love.”
“Loving fathers do not abandon families. Hence if our entire culture taught all men the art of loving, we would not have the problem of absent fathers. Within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, black males who embrace the values of these ideologies have enormous difficulty with the issue of self-love. Patriarchal thinking certainly does not encourage men to be self-loving. Instead it encourages them to believe that power is more important than love, particularly the power to dominate and control others.”
Though physically present, emotionally Jerome’s father was absent from the lives of his children.
Sheldon’s announcement that, “we are having a baby,” challenges the notion from one of his friends that because his [Sheldon’s] girlfriend had an earlier child for whom he is not the father he should be less caring of the family. This becomes a power counterpoint to the trauma of Jerome’s childhood and its consequence.
Sheldon’s love for his biological family and by extension, his wider family of friends is grounded in love and challenges negative stereotypes, some bought into by his friends.
hooks, in “We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity” notes that: “Negative stereotypes about the nature of black masculinity continue to overdetermine the identities black males are allowed to fashion for themselves.”
She continued that: “More than any other black male who has come to power in our nation, Malcolm X embodied black male refusal to allow his identity to be defined by a system of race, gender, and class domination. His was the example that young black folks in the sixties followed as we struggled to educate ourselves for critical consciousness. We studied Malcolm’s words, accepting that he gave us permission to liberate ourselves, to liberate the black male by any means necessary.”
The theme of love continues in the reason Jakes, played by Troy Crossfield, decides to delay attending his best friend’s wedding as bestman and opts to play dominoes instead.
Jakes’ protracted revelation comes in his declaration that he loves his best friend – an outing of his homosexuality -- which garners the understanding and support of his fellow black male friends.
The inclusion of soundscapes, the stage setting of moving boxes, and the seamless integration of DJ O-nonymous as Dwayne, spinning live music add to the authenticity of the place and the current issues impacting these lives.
In the director’s note, Powell notes in part that, “…Darren’s work is more urgent than ever, particularly in light of the many challenges we continue to experience in our society today. And so, we use the power of the theatre to continue speaking out and taking a stand in the face of injustice, bringing our narratives forward and letting our voices be heard.”
Anthony, in the playwright’s notes, says he wants, “Secrets of a Black Boy to spark uncomfortable, healthy dialogue that can inspire a conscious shift and contribute to making our society a better one for future generations.”
“Secrets is just that – a representation of the many facets of black men that extend beyond the headlines, and I wrote it because we are more than the one-dimensional stereotypes so often presented in the mainstream and pop culture,” he writes.
After each performance, there is a talkback session with the cast, playwright and director hosted by various figures in Toronto’s arts scene.
On November 15, there will be a town hall entitled, “Unpacking The Politics of Gender and Blackness in the Greater Toronto Area,” following the performance.
The play is produced by Playing With Crayons, co-directed by Anthony and Shaka Licorish.
“Secrets of a Black Boy” is definitely worth seeing because it opens a window into the lives of these black men grappling with challenges but at the end of it all allowing themselves to be vulnerable, to cry, and to heal with the support of community.
Visual artist, Oluseye, has an art exhibition and installation that complements “Secrets of a Black Boy” at Dais, 1196 Queen Street West, until November 18.
Informed by Yoruba mythology and geometry, he fuses human, mask, and sculptural elements to imbue his portraits with a physical-spiritual identity.
A day before “Secrets of a Black Boy” closes, another play about black masculinity, “Black Boys,” will open at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre on November 19.
The play, which runs until December 11, is described as “a raw, intimate, and timely exploration of queer male Blackness.”
“Black Boys” is created from the lives of three Black men seeking a deeper understanding of themselves, of each other, and how they encounter the world.
The performers are: Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tawiah Ben McCarthy and Thomas Olajide.
WHEN BROTHERS SPEAK
Up From The Roots presents the 18th annual When Brothers Speak Spoken Word Concert, created, curated and hosted by award-winning spoken word artist, Dwayne Morgan, on Saturday, November 26, 8 p.m. at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, 27 Front Street East, Toronto. www.dwaynemorgan.ca
All of these creations about black men and black masculinity had me thinking about organizations in Toronto that are supportive of black men and seek to disrupt the dominance of negative stereotypes.
THE BLACK DADDIES CLUB (theblackdaddiesclub.com)
A support group for black fathers to:
Develop a continuous support system for Black men and fathers to share their challenges and/or experiences.
Work with Black fathers and the community at large to address issues facing Black fathers, children and families.
Work with the media to provide alternate images of Black fathers, and assist in the creation of our own media that depicts Black fathers in a positive light.