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Mx: a mixed review from me

by | Feb 19, 2021 | Review | 0 comments

publicity photo for Mx at The Cultch

Lili Robinson wrote and stars in Mx. (Photo by Christache Ross)

I’m a white guy reviewing a show about mixed-race identity, specifically the reclamation of Black identity. The lack of diversity in criticism is a serious problem and I’ve been trying to find ways to address it, but I lack resources. I’ve recently had a conversation with a colleague who’s better at accessing money than I am. I hope something comes of that.

For now, I’m going to review Mx because The Cultch asked me to and because I hope that something I say might be helpful. Fair warning: I’m going to approach this more as a technician than as a member of Mx‘s target audience.

Within that context, there are all sorts of cool — and, for me, moving — things about this remount of Mx. I first saw it when it was presented at the Fringe in 2019. It won the Cultchivating the Fringe Award that year, a prize that offers further development and a remount.

Mx has come back stronger.

Lili Robinson’s script is about a young woman named Max (or Mx). She’s a special guest on The Mz. Nancy Show, a livestreamed broadcast in which Mz. Nancy promises to help members of the African diaspora reclaim their Blackness. Max grew up in Vancouver with her white mom, she never knew her Black dad, and now she feels like a fraud when she tries to connect with the Black community: “I’m so behind in being Black. I don’t get the references. I don’t know any of the stuff I’m supposed to know.”

Mz. Nancy’s just warming up when a white woman named Samantha invades the space and the struggle for Max’s soul begins.

The first time I saw Mx, I didn’t grasp the central conflict: I thought it was between Blackness and whiteness, which struck me as a weird dichotomy. This time, it was clearer to me that that the conflict is between Blackness and white erasure.

Robinson’s online version of her script takes advantage of the fluidity — and internality — of its new medium. By giving us a visceral sense of what Max is experiencing, visual distortions help us to get inside Max’s head. And Mz. Nancy provides Max with Map, a perky little onscreen avatar, that answers Max’s questions, externalizing her internal dialogue.

My take is that there are still problems with the play’s structure. It seems to me that Max’s most concrete goal is to find her father. That desire threads through the script but, unfortunately, doesn’t concretize and shape it. The current version of Mx is still disorganized and overly abstract in my view.

As directed by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and Jiv Parasram, this production of Mx is stylistically wobbly, too. Mz. Nancy and Samantha are clearly not just emblematic figures; they are also other-worldy — which is great. Mz. Nancy’s name references Anansi, a clever spider character from African and Caribbean folklore. (In a deft touch, Ariel Slack includes a spider plant on the set and Mz. Nancy’s beaded curtain looks decidedly webby.)

Because Mz. Nancy and Samantha are forces rather than human beings, it makes sense to play them larger-than-life: Alisha Davidson and Emily Jane King take full advantage of the opportunity. Davidson’s Mz. Nancy feels like a swaggering, calculating goddess and King’s Samantha is a demon.

Narratively, there’s a problem with the way they’re presented in this production, though. Samantha is a succubus from the get-go. That doesn’t leave much for us to discover or work out: we know from the beginning that we want Max to follow Mz. Nancy. That’s a shame, because Samantha has some good tricks and it would be fun to get sucked in by them: a true liberal, Samantha apologizes to Max for making assumptions about her gender identity, for instance.

Samantha’s obvious demonism is also problematic in that Max’s sexual attraction to her makes zero sense. It’s one thing to be attracted to an elusive or manipulative woman, quite another to get the hots for an obvious serial killer.

One last stylistic point: Max is human; unsurprisingly, writer Robinson’s performance in the role is most effective when it’s most naturalistic. When she leans into clowning, however, it just looks like pointless exaggeration.

Still, there are other strengths to talk about. Max has considerably more agency than she did in the earlier draft, which is great. And, in its climactic crisis and denouement, this new version of Mx hits its stride. Robinson’s performance becomes increasingly vulnerable and affecting. And there’s a very smart use of the live-chat feature. I won’t give too much away, but I will say that it involves ancestors and it made me weep.

MX by Lili Robinson. Co-directed by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and Jiv Parasram. Presented online by The Cultch. Viewed on February 18. Livestreams continue until February 21. On February 27, there will be a pre-recorded ASL (American Sign Language) and captioned performance. Tickets.


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