Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Play Explores Stories of Women Whose Men are Incarcerated

A Review
By Neil Armstrong

Virgilia Griffith and Shakura Dickson in "Other Side of the Game" at Aki Studio in Toronto. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz

“Other Side of the Game,” Amanda Parris’ debut as a playwright provides an insight into the survival of black women whose partners are incarcerated and they are the ones left to pick up the pieces.

Presented by Cahoots Theatre and Obsidian Theatre, it has its world premiere at the Aki Studio in Toronto until November 5.

The play is a “time-spanning work that tells the story of these silenced black women who organize communities, protect loved ones, battle institutions, and live each day by a ride-or-die philosophy.” 

According to Parris, the term “ride-or-die chick” became popular in the 1990s through rap music and referred to a woman who was down with the cause.  

A Hip Hop spin on the popular mythology of Bonnie and Clyde, the ride-or-die chick refers to a woman who has undying loyalty for her partner and is willing to stand by them through anything, even in the face of death, notes “The Ride or Die Project” for which Parris is a co-founder.

“For the purpose of this project, we are interested in exploring the idea of being ride-or-die as a phenomenon that has transcended time.  Our exploration refers to someone whose loyalty is not only to their intimate partners but also to their families, friends, communities, and even to political movements; recognizing that though the recipient may change, the patterns of self-effacement are consistently applied.”

The playwright interviewed women in Halifax and Toronto and the result is this play thatgives voice to black women who support their men, their families and communities, even in the face of dire consequences.”

Set in Toronto, straddling modern day and the 1970s black civil rights movement, the play is evocative and lyrical in its presentation of a population under siege.

Parris’ awareness of history and place is evident in the references to parts of the city where black people live and work – Driftwood, Falstaff, Scarborough, Randy’s, Third World Books and Crafts – and the backdrop with the CN Tower, tags and graffiti. 

In finding out about the rich history of black activism years of activism in Toronto and about women like Akua Benjamin, Makeda Silvera and Ayanna Black, Parris said she wanted to “put those women center stage.”

Her keen ear for the language of the Hip Hop generation and that of the older first generation Caribbean immigrant to this city which is evident in all of the characters, especially Shakura Dickson, who plays Shevon and Beverely, and Peter Bailey, as Elder and Winston.

The play opens with all the characters in a visiting room at a prison waiting, forever it seems, to talk to their incarcerated partners.

Four years ago, Parris sat in the waiting room of the Don Jail on a visit to an incarcerated friend. 

Her observation of the women around her also waiting inspired her to consider their stories.

Under the direction of Nigel Shawn Williams, the characters moves seamlessly from  their dual roles and storylines – Virgilia Griffith as Nicole/Akilah, Ryan Rosery as Devonte/Khalil, and Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Social Worker/Cop – and different locations.

Beyond organizing community protests and championing social justice publicly, the characters all grapple with personal challenges in their daily lives and become vulnerable beings.

“Amanda has given this company of artists an opportunity to look back and learn from the men and women who shaped Black activism in Toronto,” says Williams.

Parris was born in London, England, and is of Grenadian and Venezuelan ancestry. She was raised on the south side of Jane Street in Toronto. 

The host of CBC TV’s Exhibitionists and CBC Radio 2's Marvin's Room, Parris is the co-founder of the alternative education organization, Lost Lyrics, and founder of the critically acclaimed artistic collective, T-Dot Renaissance. 

In 2014, she joined Cahoots’ Hot House Creators Unit and was their 2016 Playwright-in-Residence.

Williams is a four-time Dora Mavor Moore Award-winner as both actor and director. His theatre credits include The Merchant of Venice for Bard on the Beach this past summer, five seasons at Stratford Festival, four seasons at Shaw Festival, as well as performances in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver. 

He is also heavily involved in new play development and mentoring young and emerging artists through the difficult transition from training schools to professional life.

A meeting place between the urgent activism of the 1970s and today’s unapologetic Hip Hop generation, Other Side of the Game is a deft illumination of resilience and struggle amidst the simmering tensions in black and other marginalized communities, notes a media release.

The play is definitely worth seeing as it pays tribute to black women whose activism is recorded in archives like the “50 Years of Black Activism” project which is a part of the Akua Benjamin Legacy Project at Ryerson University.

It also speaks to the activism of today, reflecting on how the past informs the now. Important lessons abound.

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