Written by married couple Omari Newton and Amy Lee Lavoie, Redbone Coonhound isn’t always subtle or precisely focused, but it’s got force!
It’s about Michael, who’s married to Marissa. As in the Newton/Lavoie marriage, he’s Black, she’s white, and they live in Vancouver’s West End. The story gets triggered when Michael and Marissa meet a Seattle couple who are jogging on the seawall with their dog, which is a Redbone Coonhound, an American breed used for hunting racoons and other large game.
Michael is incensed by the casual use of the breed’s name, which, in his view, contains two racial slurs. The term “redbone” can refer to light- or reddish-skinned people who are a mix of Black and other races. When used by Black people, “coon” refers to other Black folks who may suffer from racial self-hatred. It can be used to insult Black men who only date white women, for instance.
The central storyline in Redbone Coonhound concerns Michael, Marissa, and their friends in present-day Vancouver but, with the help of a narrator (artfully voiced by Tom Pickett in the Arts Club’s audio presentation), it leaps into fantastical dimensions that exist in the space “between white fragility and Black fatigue”. When the Coonhound chases Michael into Stanley Park, for instance, he transforms into his great-great-grandfather, who’s trying to escape the American South and get to Canada via the underground railroad in 1840.
I’m a white guy: keep that in mind as I try to articulate my response.
There are lots of things about Redbone Coonhound that I love. It’s audacious: it’s formally daring and it’s about something. And, unlike every other offering so far in the Arts Club’s Listen To This series of audio plays, this production, which was directed by Kayvon Khoshkam, conjures a rich audio world. That’s the medium we’re in so that’s huge! Owen Belton’s original score is delicious. When Harriet Tubman briefly appears on the undergound railroad, she gets a rap number: “Batten down your chariot/It’s fuckin’ Harriet.” Belton’s slippery, melancholy music adds sophisticated counterpoint.
There’s depth of feeling. When Marissa tries to calm Mike down and asks him why he’s getting so worked up about the term “Redbone Coonhound”, he finally cries out, “Because it fucking hurts me!” Delivered by co-writer Newton, who’s playing the role, the pain in Mike’s protest lands.
And, questioning the narrowness of Mike’s perspective, his obsession with his own suffering, Redbone Coonhound dares to explore politically risky territory. “Mike doesn’t care about misogyny,” Marissa argues, “Only about racism” — and she points out that he’s not above calling her a bitch when they disagree. Mike doesn’t do himself any favours when he counters that he’s just using the generic, Black version of “bitch.” (I forgot to mention: Redbone Coonhound is a comedy.) And the script makes the point that, even when it’s progressive, orthodoxy can be deadly, sucking up so much oxygen that nobody can breathe, never mind speak.
These riches are significant.
In my experience, there are also downsides to Redbone Coonhound.
Its comedy can be coarse — and effortful. At least one whole sequence dies on the vine.
When the self-satisfied male Quaker in the underground-railroad story tries to evade capture by assuming a pseudonym, his adversary, a slave catcher, says, “That name’s more made up than your wife Tuesday night round twilight.” This joke almost worked for me, but it didn’t because it’s trying so hard.
And there’s a lot of supposed humour concerning the Quaker’s sexually oppressed wife Jennifer. She tells her husband, “I cannot wait for you to enter me today” and she asks if he’d like her to put her hands down his pants. A compromised Black man named Still tells the Quaker, “I been down South on your wife very often.” You could argue that this is about the oppression of women and the Mandingo trope of Black male sexuality — but it’s so repetitive and witless.
A fantasy sequence that inverts the dynamics of Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner also lands with a thud. A young white woman brings her would-be fiancé home to meet her white — and fanatically liberal — Mom and Dad in West Vancouver. They’re appalled to learn that the guy is “Caucasian”. This sequence just keeps repeating the same joke.
Because of missteps like this, and because the tangents into fantasy undermine the accumulation of narrative tension, I looked at my watch a lot during the second half of Redbone Coohound’s 100-minutes. But some of Vancouver’s best actors have loaned their talents to his recording: besides Pickett and Newton, the cast list includes Celia Aloma, Bryan Denmore, Kayla Deorksen, Nancy Kerr, Brian Markinson, and Luc Roderique.
And I remain grateful for the striking pleasures and challenges that I experienced with both the script and production.
REDBONE COONHOUND by Amy Lee Lavoie and Omari Newton. Directed by Kayvon Khoshkam. Original music by Owen Belton. Produced by the Arts Club Theatre as part of their Listen To This series of audio plays. Here’s where to get tickets. Redbone Coonhound will be available until September 27.
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