Saturday, 18 February 2017

'Black Lives, Black Words' to premiere in Toronto

By Neil Armstrong
Kanika Ambrose

Jordan Laffrenier

Chicago playwright, Reginald Edmund, managing producer of the Black Lives, Black Words international project that will have its Canadian premiere at the 38th Rhubarb Festival at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto.

Some local black playwrights will be showcasing their ten-minute plays responding to the theme, “Do Black Lives Matter today?” 

Created by Reginald Edmund, a Chicago playwright, the Black Lives, Black Words international project has explored the Black diaspora experience in Chicago, Minneapolis, and in London, UK.

It will now have its Canadian premiere in Toronto on February 24 and 25 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

The project will be presented at the 38th Rhubarb Festival in partnership with Obsidian Theatre Company and the National Arts Centre.

Edmund, who is the managing producer of the project, says after the events of Trayvon Martin and the long list of others he realized that there wasn’t an opportunity for artists of colour to speak their truth regarding this important issue.

Martin was the 17-year-old African American male from Miami Gardens, Florida killed by George Zimmerman, a white man, in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012. His killing led to many protests and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“I felt this strong need to speak. I felt this really strong need to have my voice heard and speak about this horrible issue that was taking place, and also tell the story of the community,” says Edmund.

He wondered to himself how many other people out there also had this shared desire to speak their truth.

“And so I just begin that hunt for other artists to join and be a part of this discussion,” he says, noting that the project was started in Chicago in 2015.

The resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists says part of the reason why he decided to take the project beyond the United States is that it wasn’t solely in his country that the issues of Black Lives Matter were taking place.

“I wanted to have a global look at that discussion so that we can address the political, the economic and the cultural similarities and differences between all the Black diaspora. While we’re discussing these issues that are taking place within the world we’re also offering, hopefully, solutions within that discussion as well.”

He notes that in order to find solutions it is important to examine the shared experience while being aware that Black is not a monolithic race.

“Amiri Baraka once said that theatre must be revolutionary and I really took to that message and said how can I really apply this to our art form.”

The local writers taking part in the project are Leelee Davis, Kanika Ambrose, Jordan Laffrenier, Tawiah Ben Eben M’Carthy, Motion, Luke Reece and Meghan Swaby.

Performers include Akousa Amor-Adem, Shomari Downer, Virgillia Griffith, Cassandra Mentor and Nabo Nabea with the directors being Audrey Dwyer and Jamie

Ambrose says she has been working on a piece about a black woman’s response to seeing so many black men’s lives being taken for no reason.

“As someone who is a black woman and I have two brothers, I have my partner, and when I see the senselessness of the lives of black men being taken, I immediately think of the black men that I love. So I’m responding to that gut reaction of seeing dead black men on the ground in the media, in the news, in videos, and seeing the men in my life and the men I love in those images and in those videos.”

In her creation, the black woman tries to protect her man by shielding him, whether it be her lover, her husband, her son, her father or her brother.

Ambrose doesn’t think her piece will offer any solution but that it will be a visceral response – “physical theatre.”

“It’ll definitely be a two-hander and definitely in this work and with all my work, physical is just as important as the text.”

Ambrose thinks “Black Lives, Black Words” shouldn’t just stay in Toronto because there’s a lot to say in other Canadian cities.

“I think it’s important that we don’t stay silent and we express ourselves in all of the various ways that we can. And the way that I express myself most strongly is through my art, through my writing, and my creation, and so I think that that’s how I can lend my solidarity in this movement most strongly,” says Ambrose about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Laffrenier says when he read the prompt, “Do Black Lives Mater Today?” he laughed.

“I thought this is going to be the easiest piece I have ever had to write: an actor walks
on stage, repeats the question, and says, “No, obviously not.” It’s very simple; most
people who define themselves as white don’t care about black people.”

He continued: “I think there are very few “white” people that wake up in the morning and think: I need to do something about racist policing policies, there are now more blacks in prison than there were blacks in slavery, I need to do something about the education gap, I need to encourage my MP to fight for reparations for the racist housing policies that have occured even within the last forty years that have driven blacks into ghettos.”

Laffrenier says he is constantly surprised talking to his black peers that they don’t know about Jim Crow.

He says it has been hard to respond to the prompt in a way that is absolutely contemporary.

“Firstly, our experience has changed pretty vapidly since the recent election but a lot
of people are already talking about that and there is no need for conversation that is
already happening nearly everywhere. And secondly, there is a political correctness that people have signed on to now, that at the very least, has made language less racist.

As it currently stands, his piece exists as a bunch of sketches, scenes, and poems and it’s hard for him to say if it will offer solutions.

“But I will say, many solutions have been offered before and people haven’t signed on to them. Maybe my job isn’t to offer solutions, but to get people to sign on to the solutions that already exist.”

He thinks “Black Lives, Black Words” has the ability to capture the black experience on a global scale and to connect black lives across borders.

“There is a loneliness that is associated with being black. This project will act as a reminder that we are not alone,” says Laffrenier.

Edmund thinks part of the reason “Black Lives, Black Words” has been successful is because practitioners from various levels of experience unite to respond to what is taking place.

He notes that there is a solid need and desire for these voices to be on stage which explains why the project has sold out in every city it has been to within days.

This is his first venture into the Canadian scene both as an artist and as a producer, and also for the project.

Within every city, Edmund says he does his best to build a bridge between Black Lives, Black Words and the Black Lives Matter organizations within the community.

“I feel like since this project was inspired by these brave activists that we have a duty to them as well to help in whatever way that we can and to be fully engaged with that community there.”

He hopes that this work serves as beacon for other artists to speak out and to stand up and have their voice heard in this time.

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