Wednesday, 7 December 2016

'Black Boys' opens up on blackness, queerness and masculinity

‘Black Boys’ opens up on blackness, queerness and masculinity
By Neil Armstrong

One week ago, the play, “Black Boys,” presented by Saga Collectif and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre held a fundraiser for the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP) at the downtown Toronto theatre.

Created by Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tawiah Ben-Eben M’Carthy and Thomas Olajide with Virgilia Griffith (choreographer) and Jonathan Seinen (director), the play explores the experiences of three black gay men on issues of blackness, queerness and masculinity.

It is non-linear, multi-directional, with lots of movement and dance. “Black Boys” challenges the viewer in its narratives, monologues, and stage direction to viscerally experience the angst, challenges, and action to defy stereotypes and labels within and outside of the black gay community.

The Saga Collectif was formed in 2012 and “Black Boys” is its first production.

“We came together to create from an experiential place, digging deeply into the lives of three young men to confront issues of race, sexuality, and gender through a complex and compassionate exploration of Blackness and masculinity in raw and unapologetic terms. Using the safe space of the Black Boys project, we each bravely challenged ourselves to face the unknown to discover personal truths,” note the creators of the play in the program.

If you haven’t seen it yet, you have until Sunday, Dec. 11.

They have been creating this production for 4 years now and note that they do so – “In a climate of continued violence against the Black male body and in a culture where artists of colour are still severely underrepresented. Saga Collectif says, we are here and we are resilient.”

Drawing from their experiences they discuss differences in how they are defined: biracial, Canadian-born Black, a Ghana-born African who is labeled ‘black’ when he gets to Canada – the one-upmanship of these labels is striking in a scene in which a a quarrel develops about them.

There are Toronto-specific references: Black Lives Matter Toronto’s action at the Pride Parade,  the segregation of party-goers evident in club/bar spaces in the gay village – Crews & Tango, Woodys – the annual Blockorama which becomes the validation of the black body of one of Olajiide in predominantly white gay spaces at Pride.

In a post-show interview with the cast, Jackman-Torkoff expounds on his comment in the play that a “black queer renaissance” is happening.  

“I see that there’s all these people around the city who have been working separately and didn’t know each other. Now they’re starting to meet and realize that kind of strength can really, like, shoot us all into the stratosphere. I think this is kind of a meeting ground for people and I’m hoping it’s also an activation spot where people leave wanting to feel like they can do that. They can burst just like that; it’s all very experiential for me.”

In his monologue, Ben-Eben M’Carthy declares: “I am the change.”

He said when he moved to Canada from Ghana he felt like an outsider for a while and waited for things to change.

“I was always waiting for someone else to do something to me and I waited for a while and it wasn’t happening. So it was me taking ownership and going if I want something to change, if I want to be seen, if I want to be heard, I need to do something so that people realize that yes, this needs to happen. So when I say that I am the change, I am that new face. I am that thing that’s in the community.”

Olajide notes that, “this play to me is a celebration of the black body but also it’s a scrutiny of the black body.”

 “It’s also an exploration of the differences that we share within our blackness and that’s just as important to acknowledge as the commonalities if we’re going to really acknowledge we are the change. Because, if we’re going to move forward we have to understand where we are now, and where we’ve been, and the history that happened that really influenced where we are now.

“So, if we’re going to create change, we need to acknowledge that we have commonalities yes, we’re under the umbrella of black but within that umbrella of black are a myriad of different definitions. Within the queer umbrella there’s a myriad of different definitions that need to be acknowledged if we’re going to create change we want to see.

Ben-Eben M’Carthy said they spent 4 years together thinking in the same bowl, swimming in the same bowl, wearing their own goggles, so they had shared experiences, for example, they were all in Whitehorse, Yukon when the Orlando shooting happened.

“The three of us were together and that had an impact on us. There was also something special that the three of us were together when that happened, just there for each other.”

The three actors are not only the writers of the play but they are also producing it.

“A lot of these conversations that we had activated a lot of things within us and that’s how some of these conversations ended up in the show. It was important for us to have that conversation about Black Lives Matter because it spoke true of something that happened within the community that Tommy [Thomas] goes on to explain, I go on to talk how that affects us kind of outside of the incident, “ says Ben-Eben M’Carthy.

Shannon Ryan, executive director of Black CAP, equates the issues in the play to the work of the agency.

They talk about issues of anti-black racism, about how homophobia plays out specifically in black communities, about issues of HIV stigma, and helping black queer men and women, substance use – “all issues that were brought up in this play.”

“These are the stories that we need told to deepen our understanding of the resilience of our community, but also some of the vulnerabilities that our communities experience, again, in relation to those factors of homophobia, racism, mental health, substance use. All these factors are important to us because they really inform our approach to addressing HIV prevention in the broader community.”

He is happy that there is a community of people that is receptive to hearing these stories and “that there are such incredible artists in our community that are telling these stories as well.”

Left-right: Thomas Olajide, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff and Tawiah Ben-Eben M'Carthy, cast of the play, "Black Boys," presented by Saga Collectif and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto.

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