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Black Boys brings it home

by | Jan 17, 2018 | Review | 1 comment

Buddies in Bad Time is presenting Black Boys at the Cultch as part of the PuSh Festival

Thomas Olajide leaps in Black Boys. (Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh)

It gets better. And I don’t mean that in the Dan Savage your-miserable-queer-adolescence-can-turn-into-a-happy-queer-adulthood sense. I mean Black Boys starts haltingly but hits a solid and satisfying groove.

In Black Boys, three men explore what it means to them to be black and queer—in Canada, mostly Toronto it seems—right now. Their experiences are very different. Stephen Jackman-Torkoff grew up in foster care in the Toronto suburbs. Tawiah Ben-Eben M’Carthy emigrated from Ghana. And Thomas Olajide started life in Vancouver, raised by his grandmother and aunt.

Throughout the show, these actor/writers express themselves through scenes, monologues, poetry, and dance. Choreographer Virgilia Griffith and director Jonathan Seinen are also credited as creators.

Black Boys is ambitious, but, off the top, it struggles to find its focus. There are successes and partial successes, but the whole doesn’t add up.

In one of my favourite sequences from the early going, M’Carthy prays both in English and in Twi, a Ghanaian language, before declaring, “God and I are lovers…off and on. God is his Christian name. The English version. There’s always an English version.” There’s so much complexity in this passage: faith and colonialism, shame and wit.

For me, the least successful element of the beginning is Jackman-Torkoff’s stage persona. His performance is so over the top that he flattens much of what he delivers. I’m sure the material about his being a ward of the crown could open hearts and increase understanding, for instance, but, as an audience member, it’s hard to approach him when he’s doing the emotional equivalent of windmilling his arms.

The various modes of expression feel unintegrated. There’s some Sturm und Drang dancing, for instance, punctuated by moments of tenderness but, because I didn’t have a stable framework for the show, I didn’t have a clear lens through which to interpret it.

Then the watershed moment arrived—ignited, interestingly enough, by a particularly excessive solo by Jackman-Torkoff. He does a wild dance tribute to Josephine Baker, complete with banana skirt, then hurls himself on the floor and wails a tortured version of “Amazing Grace”. When he’s done, Olajide objects to what he regards as a careless use of the hymn and that sets off a heated argument among all three players about black and queer identity.

Olajide accuses Jackman-Torkoff, who is light-skinned, of not knowing what it’s like to be really black, which prompts Jackman-Torkoff to tell him that “you and your straight-acting ass can back the fuck up.” When Olajide tells M’Carthy that he doesn’t understand the context of “Amazing Grace”, M’Carthy shoots back, “So why don’t you educate me about myself and my history, black man from North America?”

This passage is fantastic, partly because of the obvious, conflict is an excellent way to generate dramatic interest, but more importantly because the complexities of black identity are suddenly embodied concretely in the relationships between the performers. Variety and the struggle to comprehend it become flesh.

For me, this framing didn’t just focus the show; it also opened it up conceptually. It allowed me to recognize that there’s no “getting it” in terms of queer black identity. After all, there’s no monolithic queer black maleness to get. It’s the multiplicity, the interaction among viewpoints, that’s compelling. As a white guy, I found that this recognition liberated my relationship to the material. As I observed the performers’ contradictions and blind spots, I felt freer to acknowledge and explore my own.

From this point on, I basically had a great ride.

The tensions and releases in Griffith’s choreography made more sense to me.

I continued to find M’Carthy’s material particularly compelling. I was touched by the piece, for instance—“When I think of the future. Of home. Of planting ground”—in which he tries to imagine, without much optimism, a future in which he might finally belong somewhere as a gay Ghanaian-Canadian. This expands on an idea he has sowed earlier, the idea of wanting an African partner, a man whose body reflects his body, a man whose history mirrors his own.

Near the end, Olajide performs an exceptional poem. Repeating the refrain “This ain’t nothin’ but a fine black frame” as he walks, shirtless, about the space, he evokes a complicated combination of camp narcissism, uncomfortable awareness of his objectification, humility, and defiance. Because of its use of repetition, this poem is also more satisfying to me structurally than some of the more free-form spoken word in the evening.

I’ve also got to say that, earlier in the show, Olajide presents a charmingly innocent story about tripping onto his homosexuality as a boy while trying to jerk off to straight porn: “Titty, titty, titty…Mario Lopez!” .

And, in a company in which everybody is an articulate mover, Olajide impresses as a particularly strong dancer.

The physical production supports these performers expertly. I’m thinking, for instance, of the way that Jareth Li’s lighting isolates M’Carthy as he speaks his poem about longing. And Rachel Forbes’s modular set is flexible and expressive. A collection of screens and benches, it provides a vast surface for video projections, creates a child’s snug bedroom, and disappears to create a sense of liberation.

The last line in the script is “Look what we can do!” By that point in the evening, everybody involved has more than earned it.

BLACK BOYS Created by Saga Collectif. Directed by Jonathon Seinen. Produced by Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Saga Collectif, and presented by The Cultch with Zee Zee Theatre on Tuesday, January 16. Continues until January 20. 


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1 Comment

  1. Roger Blenman

    During the talkback after Wednesday’s show (January 17 in Vancouver) Thomas Olajide named ‘empathy’ as what he would like the viewer to take away from the show. As someone who identifies as a gay Black male, the performers, the performance, already had my empathy.
    Nevertheless I wanted more narrative unity. I wanted a more politically strident message. I wanted to see and experience more of those elements that I felt were essential to construction of Black gay identity.
    The raw emotion, however, the openness of the performers (especially, exceptionally Stephen Jackman-Torkoff), was astounding, refreshing—it was not theatre; it was more ‘real’ than what usually goes by that name.
    Perhaps what is required of the viewer is not “a clear lens through which to interpret it” but instead a willingness to be moved, and not merely carried for a ride.
    Roger Blenman


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