This is unusual: a relatively positive review has come back to haunt me — well, to tap me on the shoulder.
When the Arts Club mounted Redbone Coonhound as part of its audio play series, I kind of liked it. Back in February, I said about the play, “It isn’t always subtle or precisely focused, but it’s got force!” Having seen the piece fully staged, I’m less enthusiastic.
The script, which was written by married couple Amy Lee Lavoie and Omari Newton, runs on two tracks. On one, a Vancouver couple named Mike and Marissa encounter a pair of joggers and their dog, a redbone coonhound they’ve had shipped up from Louisiana. Mike, who’s Black, is offended by the apparent racism of the breed name. Marissa is white. Her initial response to Mike’s agitation: “It’s just some old-timey name.” In this relatively naturalistic storyline, the coonhound encounter seeps into and informs a gathering of Mike and Marissa’s friends.
The play’s second track consists of a series of “fever dreams”, broadly satirical fantasies about historical and future framings of race — and, to a far lesser degree, misogyny.
Speaking of misogyny, that’s one of the interesting things about the script: Marissa points out, with plenty of evidence, that Mike is pretty much a one-issue candidate: for him, everything is about race; he has so little time or respect for Marissa’s ongoing experience of misogyny that he’s not above calling her a bitch when they fight. Mike tries to defend himself by saying he’s using the generic Black version of “bitch”, not the more specific, accusatory version. This send-up of the narcissism of identity politics is the script’s raison d’être; after they and their friends have been duking it out all night, Marissa allows that everybody has been bit of a “shit-faced dick.”
But there are problems.
The fever dreams are about as subtle as cudgels. In the first one, which is set in 1850, an escaping slave makes contact with a Quaker couple who are supposed to help him, but they are idiotic liberals — “Hello, coloured friend!” — and the man is a cartoon misogynist who makes his wife go onto all fours so he can use her back as a table. To round things out, the scene is also an attempted parody of Mandingo-style sexual fantasies. A Black man, who is a slave-catcher’s accomplice, makes repeated references to having sex with the slave-catcher’s wife. None of this lands (for me). None of it is revelatory. None of it is funny.
In another fever dream, this one set in the 1930s, a movie director tells a crying, Shirley Temple-like child star, that she’s going to be spending another weekend with five men at the No-tell Motel. When Temple was making movies, she had to repeatedly fend off the advances of adult men, but this framing of that horror is brutally clumsy.
And, in a third dream, a young white woman brings her fiancée to her white parents’ West Van home, which is chock full of African décor. Mom is wearing a dashiki. And Mom and Dad are both horrified that the fiancée turns out to be “Caucasian.” Yes, it’s a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner joke. Yes, it’s about cultural misappropriation. And it’s the same joke, the same joke, the same joke repeated ad nauseum.
The more naturalistic storyline is more successful because it contains more ideas and more interesting character relationships. M and M’s friend Gerald, for instance, is a Black cop who’s sick of being labeled a traitor for trying to work within the system. And Zac is a well-intentioned white guy who is so lacking in racial awareness that he makes blunder after blunder.
None of this has any shape, though. Well, it has a shape, but it’s a simple arrow pointing up. As the evening progresses, everybody’s opinions get more and more entrenched. Mostly what that means is an increase in volume. There’s so little accumulating insight — and so little change — that the play’s conclusion feels like little more than an unsatisfying shrug.
Within this, there are a bunch of actors doing good work. Jesse Lipscombe fills Mike’s limited perspective with feeling. Emma Slipp makes a responsive Marissa and she’s heartbreaking as the Shirley Temple character, Sweet Sue. Kwesi Ameyaw, who’s playing Gerald, delivers the most thoroughly naturalistic performance of the evening. And, in a different stylistic world, Sebastien Archibald exercises his comic chops as Zac, the doofus.
Kevin McAllister’s set, which uses a revolve, is handsome. The basic design for the fever-dream side is to stylishly elemental in its curving organic shapes, that it evokes the paintings of both Giorgio de Chiroco and Georgia O’Keefe. And the wittiness of CS Fergusson-Vaux’s costume design reaches its zenith in Black power uniforms from the distant future — complete with huge, wedge-shaped hair that make the perched black berets look tiny.
In an innovative choice, co-projection designers Sammy Chien and Caroline MacCaull (Chimerik) provide lush, almost psychedelic video washes for the scene changes.
Still, I was rarely engaged. Why was I more open to the earlier, audio-only iteration of the script? Maybe it’s because Owen Belton’s sound design, which I barely noticed this time, was a bigger part of the experience and I dug it. Maybe it’s because I was engaged by actor Tom Pickett’s narration, which has, understandably, been cut. Or maybe it’s because more elements need to succeed all at once in live theatre and, in live performance, those elements are all explicit, which differs from the audio experience in which we’re imaginatively filling in more of the blanks. (To be clear: I’m not trying to retract my earlier review; I’m just trying to sort through the differences because I find them interesting.)
I don’t doubt for a second that everybody’s hearts are in the right places on this project. And I’m a white guy, which is worth taking into consideration. Still, I didn’t have a great time at Redbone Coonhound.
REDBONE COONHOUND By Amy Lee Lavoie and Omari Newton. Co-directed by Omari Newton and Ashlie Corcoran. An Arts Club Theatre production on the Newmont Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre on Thursday, October 13. Running until October 30. Tickets
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