Saturday, 17 February 2018

'Black Boys' Returns to Toronto After Tour to Other Canadian Cities

By Neil Armstrong

Photo credit: Jeremy Mimnagh  From left: Tawiah Ben M'Carthy, Thomas Olajide and Stephen Jackman-Torkoff in 'Black Boys' at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto.

After having its world premiere in Toronto two years ago, “Black Boys” created by the Saga Collectif is back and has toured Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal since mid-January.

The production will be back in Toronto for a two-week run from February 28 to March 11 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

“Black Boys” is a raw, intimate, and timely exploration of queer male Blackness, which is created from the lives of three people seeking a deeper understanding of themselves, of each other, and of how they encounter the world. 

As they explore their unique identities on stage, they subvert the ways in which gender, sexuality, and race are performed. Theatrical and intimate, “Black Boys” weaves together the ensemble’s own personal stories in search of an integrated self and a radical imagination.

Tawiah Ben M’Carthy of the cast of three – the others being Stephen Jackman-Torkoff and Thomas Olajide – describes their work as an art piece, not a play.

In 2017, “Black Boys” was nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Performance – Ensemble. 

 “I’ll be the first person to tell you that ‘Black Boys’ is not a play because it doesn’t fit into the structure of what a play is supposed to be and it was a bit challenging during our run here in Toronto to have people who do not get it. And when I say get it, most of them don’t get it because it’s not a chronological play. They won’t see something that has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he said regarding the reviews of its Toronto premiere in 2016.

Having come up with something requiring people to think a bit outside the box, it sometimes felt like they were hitting against a brick wall. 

“Being creators of the show that was a challenge that we went through quite a bit,” he said, noting that they wanted people to come in and be engaged from the beginning to the end.

“It felt like because it wasn’t a traditional piece of theatre it was something that people didn’t know what to do with. But the exciting part is that we get to do it again and again and the more we do it the more people are going ‘oh we get it,’” he said.

People are now saying it’s not a play, it’s an experience and the engagement continues beyond the play, he said.

Ben M’Carthy says the reception to the tour has been great and the conversations, spectacular.

He said young people and people of varying backgrounds could relate to the story that seems to be so specific.

“It’s exciting when you create something like that, that seems a bit specific, but have everyone watch it and go, oh I connect with that or relate with that.”

The playwright and actor said they started workshopping “Black Boys” in 2013 and through to 2016 when they had three workshops in Toronto. In November that year it premiered at Buddies.

“It was about a three-and-a-half year process of creating the show – off and on – because we’re all doing different things in other places.”  

There are a few points in the play open to improvisation, especially with Jackman-Torkoff’s character, where he might change what he says depending on the room they are in and the day of the week. Aside from that, everything has remained the same in the remount.

In terms of any revelations for him in it, Ben M’Carthy says it’s coming to the point of understanding the complexity of black masculinity and how it manifests itself, and also challenging what is known to be the stereotypical perception of what black masculinity is supposed to look like.

“I don’t think it’s something that I fully understand and that I understood, and I don’t think it’s something that I even understand now or fully articulate. But what I can say through the experience of working on such a project and now even traveling with it is I’m coming to the understanding that it actually does manifest itself in different forms.”

He acknowledges that there is no single definition or archetype of black masculinity that will “help us move forward, especially when it comes to the conversation of queer identity.”

The actor noted that queerness and sexuality are not the same thing; they’re different.

“Having that conversation, just understanding that masculinity expresses itself in different forms, I believe, is the way forward. I’m beginning to understand that more and more each time I work on the show.”

Ben M’Carthy said he is surprised how much of a deeper understanding he gets of what is going on onstage each time he does the show.

When it premiered in Toronto, he said the conversation was already happening with what was happening with Black Lives Matter and there was an audience hungry for the message.

He felt that although the production was made in Toronto by Torontonians it wasn’t just for this city; hence the decision to go on tour to activate conversations in other spaces.

After the Toronto performances, all three will be going off to do their own thing to acquire new skills and come back in the future to work on a new project. The process has worked well for them. 

Director, Jonathan Seinen, is doing his masters at Columbia University, Olajide is completing the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) film program, Jackman-Torkoff is about to act inThe Glass Menagerie’ at the Grand Theatre In London, Ontario, and Ben M’Carthy will be an intern director for a season at the Shaw Festival.

The creative team includes choreographer, Virgilia Griffith; dramaturge, Mel Hague; and designers Rachel Forbes (set and costume), Stephen Surlin (sound and video), and Jareth Li (lighting).

Griffith is directing a new play, “Ceremony,” at the 39th Rhubarb Festival this month.

[This story was published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, Feb. 15-21, 2018.]

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