SummerWorks: Confronting white supremacy in the searing, timely, tension-filled White Heat

Tim Walker. Photo by Graham Isador.

 

Pressgang Theatre presents a workshop production of Graham Isador’s White Heat. Based on real events, it takes us into the incendiary, tension-filled conflict between an alt-right podcaster and a digital media reporter in a searing, timely look at the dangerous consequences of white supremacist views, inciting harassment and violence against racialized people, non-Christian religions and LGBTQI communities—and the news media outlets that shine a light on their hateful, bigoted words and actions. Directed by Jill Harper, White Heat opened its three-performance run in Longboat Hall at the Great Hall last night.

Inspired by, and drawn from, work by Scaachi Koul, Aamer Rahman, Manisha Krishnan, Mack Lamoureux, Kim Kelly and The Good Fight, White Heat is told from reporter Alice Kennings’ (Makambe K Simamba) point of view, as she relates the events leading up to and including her meeting with the alt-right voice behind the White Heat podcast, a man known only as The Captain (Tim Walker). Disturbed by the increasing presence, influence and violence perpetrated by white supremacist and Nazi groups—and encourage by her editor to produce pieces with her own distinct voice—Alice writes a piece about punching Nazis. The piece goes viral, and the subsequent blow-back of hate messages via email and social media are shocking, to say the least—and as she’s a Black woman, the messages are sexually violent or tell her to go back where she came from. Of course, The Captain has his say as well, and encourages his listeners to show their appreciation. Then, three bikers with 1488 bandanas masking their faces show up at her office and threaten to stop by her home, shouting “White Heat” as they exit.

Disturbed and frightened, but not backing down, Alice and her editor launch an investigation to uncover the identity of The Captain; and while they find some unsurprising clues regarding his trajectory toward the sneering, bigoted podcaster he is today, the discovery of his family situation puts Alice in a moral and ethical dilemma, forcing her to reconsider whether they should out him.

Outstanding performances from Simamba and Walker in this electric, compelling and important examination of the growing, out and proud movement of white supremacy; and the real and present danger for those they target, and those who oppose and call them out. Simamba gives a fiercely passionate, sharply funny performance as Alice—balancing cerebral and visceral responses as Alice continues to go after this story even in the face of terrifying threats. A dedicated professional who loves her job, Alice is devoted to reporting the facts and is damn good at it; faced his personal information, she finds empathy for The Captain—but will she be able to use that to reason with him? Walker’s Captain is a fascinating and disturbing portrait of an ordinary white guy who’s confused, angry and bitterly disappointed by a series of life-changing events that were largely out of his control. Now he’s feeling oppressed a white male, targeted and blamed for all the bad in the world—and he’s pushing back and looking for someone to blame for his predicament. He’s not an evil man, but a profoundly human, downtrodden and misguided one—and it’s that humanity that Alice tries to reach.

In the presence of conflicting pieces of conventional wisdom that tell us ‘don’t feed the trolls’ and ‘stand up to bullies’, in this case you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Pushing back against alt-right and Nazi bullies can escalate their push-back and grow their audience—and hate-filled words and threats can easily manifest as violent actions against the communities they target and those who call foul.

White Heat continues in Longboat Hall at the Great Hall for just two more performances: tonight (August 12) at 9:30 p.m. and August 14 at 6:00 p.m. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it’s a very short three-show run, and last night was packed, so advance booking strongly recommended.

Secrets revealed & dreams denied in the ferociously funny, deeply poignant August: Osage County

The ensemble. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Davida Tkach. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

 

Life is very long.—T.S. Eliot

Soulpepper presents a ferociously funny, deeply poignant production of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, running now at the Young Centre. Directed by Jackie Maxwell, assisted by Lindsay Bell, it’s a modern-day classic family tragicomedy; a microcosm of the disintegration of the American Dream. In the explosive aftermath of loss, a complex family dynamic of abuse, secrets and addiction is revealed—and the reeling survivors must choose what to do next as they pick their way out of the rubble.

When lauded American poet and infamous alcoholic Beverly Weston (Diego Matamoros) goes missing, his entire clan rallies around pill-popping family matriarch Violet (Nancy Palk), now living with cancer. The introverted Ivy, their youngest daughter (Michelle Monteith), the only the only one who stayed in town, has a secret love. Whip-smart academic Barbara, the eldest (Maev Beaty) is concealing her separation from her husband Bill (Kevin Hanchard), a university prof having an affair with a student; and their 15-year-old daughter Jean (Leah Doz) is just trying to deal with it all as she smokes pot on the sly. And middle daughter, the flaky Karen (Raquel Duffy), seems to have found a new lease on life with a career as a real estate agent and her charming, entitled, sleazy fiancé Steve (Ari Cohen).

Rounding out the family portrait in the dark, hot and decrepit family home in rural Pawhuska, Oklahoma is Violet’s filterless gossip of a sister Mattie Fae (Laurie Paton); artless, kind-hearted brother-in-law Charlie (Oliver Dennis); and fragile, depressed nephew Little Charles (Gregory Prest). Witnessing it all from the background is the Weston’s new housekeeper/caregiver Johnna (Samantha Brown), a local Cheyenne woman hired by Beverly to keep home and hearth together amid the chaos of sickness, addiction and decay.

The family soon learns of Beverly’s whereabouts when town Sheriff Deon Gilbeau (Jeff Meadows), Barbara’s high school sweetheart, arrives at the door with news that his body has been found—a suspected suicide, but officially ruled as a drowning. The initial dynamic of worried family support disintegrates into ugly revelation and recrimination as long hidden rot and resentment comes to light in the hellishly sweltering heat of the Plains in August; and Barbara attempts to take control of the situation. Left with Violet after an explosive post-funeral dinner, followed by several individual family skirmishes, Barbara begins to implode herself—and is forced to face a fresh hell and a decision of her own.

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Maev Beaty & Nancy Palk. Set design by Camellia Koo. Costume design by Gillian Gallow. Lighting design by Davida Tkach. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Palk and Beaty are riveting as the sharp-witted, brutally honest mother and daughter—the two alphas of the family menagerie. Palk’s Violet is the perfect combination of fury and pathos; an acerbic tongue, and a gift for manipulation and attention-seeking, it becomes apparent that Violet’s dark humour and grasping materialism are borne of a tortured, impoverished soul and an abusive family history. She is well-matched by Beaty’s Barbara; a whip-smart writer and academic who’s suppressed her own ambition in the shadow of her famous father, and in service of her husband’s career and her own family. Barbara’s confident, take-charge demeanour reveals the desperately lost life and broken heart that lie beneath. And where Violet lashes out with cruelty to overpower, Barbara aims for tough love.

Monteith is heartbreaking as the gentle, put-upon Ivy, who’s struggling to find her place and a bit of happiness. Duffy is hilarious as the quirky, exhausting Karen; a one-woman hurricane of changeable beliefs and lifestyles, ever reaching for the brass ring. Dennis is lovely as the kind, gentle Charlie—especially in exchanges with his painfully self-conscious, down-trodden son Little Charles (a sensitive, child-like performance from Prest). And Matamoros brings a brutally insightful, drunken eloquence to the poet Beverly.

Expressions of love and tenderness provide brief moments of respite from the cruelty and bitterness of these complex family relationships. And Brown’s pragmatic, matter-of-fact Johnna—listener, witness and left to deal with the aftermath of each event—is a stark reminder of the original Indigenous stewards of the land we now call America; colonized and evicted from their homeland. Now watching from the sidelines as the American Dream falls into ruin, as all survivors emerge from and persevere through the rubble.

August: Osage County continues at the Young Centre until June 23; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188.

Soulpepper will be offering live ASL interpretation for this production on June 6 (7:30 PM) and June 8 (1:30 PM); $20 tickets are available for Deaf community members and their invited guests—click here for more info.

A legendary & mostly true screenwriting miracle in the hilarious Moonlight & Magnolias

Martin Buote, Rob Candy & Ryan Bannon. Mural by Elaine Freedman. Lighting design by Dustin Woods-Turner. Costumes by Lisha Mohan. Photo by Graeme Hay.

 

The Village Players presents Moonlight and Magnolias, the mostly true story of how the final screenplay for Gone with the Wind was written—the 80th anniversary of the iconic film’s release is later this year, on December 15. Written by Ron Hutchison and directed by Michael Hiller, the play follows the hilarious crazy miracle of the writing process, with producer David O. Selznick, director Victor Fleming and writer Ben Hecht holed up in Selznick’s office, under the gun to re-write the script and get production back up and running.

After clearing the major hurdles of finding his Scarlett O’Hara and shooting the burning of Atlanta, Selznick (Martin Buote) has put the brakes on production. He’s got multiple versions of the script, and he’s not happy with any of them. Intending to use bits and pieces from these scripts, along with dialogue from Margaret Mitchell’s book, he calls in screenwriter/script doctor Ben Hecht (Ryan Bannon) and pulls director Victor Fleming (Rob Candy) off of The Wizard of Oz to help him conjure a Hollywood miracle and re-write the script in five days. Selznick’s career is on the line, father-in-law Louis B. Mayer is breathing down his neck, and Vivien Leigh is getting antsy about the break in shooting—and Hecht hasn’t read the book!

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Ryan Bannon, Martin Buote & Rob Candy. Mural by Elaine Freedman. Lighting design by Dustin Woods-Turner. Costumes by Lisha Mohan. Photo by Graeme Hay.

Selznick locks the three of them in his office and, with the assistance of his secretary Miss Poppenghul (Céline Gunton), they live on bananas and peanuts* as Selznick and Fleming act out scenes from the book while Hecht types them out. Hilarity, doubt and anger ensue, complete with bickering over content, Fleming and Hecht sniping at each other, Hecht calling out the insanity of trying to make slave owners likeable—not to mention the systemic anti-Semitism of American society—with Selznick desperate to keep things on track, the clock ticking as he loses money with production on hold. Devolving into a hallucinatory, exhausted mess, the three men crawl to the finish line of the final scene. Then another argument erupts over the ending.

Great work from the cast in this zany, improbable tale—funny ‘cuz it’s true (mostly). Buote gives a passionate performance as Selznick, nicely balancing drive, determination and desperation. This is a life and death situation for the producer; and he’s dedicated years of his life to the project-determined to stay true to Mitchell’s book, despite all the naysaying. Candy makes a likeable cad as the pompous, ambitious Fleming, who’s delighted to be released from babysitting the grossly misbehaved munchkins on The Wizard of Oz. Together, Buote (Scarlett) and Candy (Ashley, Melanie and Prissy) do hilarious characterizations as they act out Gone with the Wind. Bannon’s the perfect devil’s advocate as the talented smart ass Hecht; the social conscience in the room, Hecht isn’t comfortable normalizing racism in this movie. Possessing a deep sense of social awareness, Hecht calls out Selznick, a fellow Jew, on the parallels of systemic oppression. All nicely supported by Gunton’s perky, intrepid and dedicated Miss Poppenghul—who, while happy to cater to her boss’s every whim without complaint, reveals her shock and disdain at the news of an incident of abusive behaviour perpetrated by Fleming.

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Céline Gunton & Rob Candy. Mural by Elaine Freedman. Lighting design by Dustin Woods-Turner. Costumes by Lisha Mohan. Photo by Graeme Hay.

The lengths to which storytellers will go to get the story right, despite all the odds—risking personal and professional failure to see a project through to its completion, without compromise or apology. A legendary tale behind a legendary film—and the small cast of creative characters behind the scenes.

With big shouts to the small army of Village Playhouse volunteers who worked behind the scenes to put this production of Moonlight and Magnolias on the stage, featuring stage manager Margot Devlin at the helm, keeping the show up and running from the booth.

Moonlight and Magnolias continues at the Village Playhouse to February 2; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-767-7702.

*Mindful of peanut allergies, the production uses fake plastic peanuts.

Art & literature come out to play together at the Leon Rooke & John Metcalf Salon Exhibition

I had the great pleasure of attending the Leon Rooke and John Metcalf Salon Exhibition last night, hosted by Fran Hill Gallery at Rooke’s residence at 246 Brunswick Ave., Toronto—also the new contact space for the gallery since it moved from its St. Clair W./Christie neighbourhood Show Room. The event featured Rooke’s latest paintings and sculptures, and the Biblioasis launch of two new books by Metcalf: The Canadian Short Story and Finding Again the World—Selected Stories.

Ushered up to event in the spacious, open and bright second floor space of the home—with its striking sky lights, interesting nooks and gorgeous fireplace—several of us (including me) remarked that we wanted to take up residence there ourselves. And it was here that we wandered about, viewing Rooke’s art over wine and cheese, and  treated to a reading by Metcalf.

Comprised of small to medium-sized canvasses, and curious, detailed and often delightful sculptures and shadow boxes, much of Rooke’s (who is also an author) work in this exhibit has a light, playful, whimsical quality—with some of the pieces emerging with a richer, deeper palette and darker, mysterious and even erotic undertones. Be forewarned: Not all of the pieces on display are necessarily for sale (exhibit pieces are noted with a number, accompanied by a printed guide with titles and pricing) and at least one piece (the Fish sculpture, featured at the top of this post) sold last night.

Following a brief introduction by Biblioasis Publisher Dan Wells, Metcalf—who also worked for years as a highly respected editor, most notably on Best Canadian Stories, curating the anthology and shepherding writers—read us excerpts from The Canadian Short Story and The Museum at the End of the World. Part historical overview, part critical guide, part love letter to the form, The Canadian Short Story is anything but a dry, academic tome, despite its hefty size. Sharply insightful, and full of humour and interesting examples and anecdotes about authors; hearing the excerpt, it struck me as being the “inside baseball” for the short story lover. And the audiophile journey Metcalf took us on with the piece from The Museum at the End of the World (a series of linked stories and novellas) gave us sharply drawn characters; visceral and present details that pique the senses; and a curiosity shop environment that enveloped the intimate, almost confessional nature of the characters’ conversation—about the musicians, birthplace and evolution of the blues. I was so taken by this work of autobiographically inspired fiction that I left with a signed copy.

All in all, it was a lovely and inspirational evening of striking art, literature and people.

The Leon Rooke exhibit continues throughout the fall; give Fran Hill a shout at 416 363-1333 or franhillartgallery@gmail.com to book an appointment. The residence at 246 Brunswick Ave. is tucked in behind 244 Brunswick Ave., accessed by the walkway to the right.

You can visit the Biblioasis website or your favourite book shop to find works by John Metcalf.

Here are some snaps I took last night.

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Playfully whimsical, profoundly poignant & sharply candid ruminations in Dawna J. Wightman’s honey be

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Dawna J. Wightman. Photo by Vince Lupo.

 

Montreal-born Dawna J. Wightman is an award-winning Toronto-based actor, playwright and writer. Toronto audiences will recognize Wightman from her solo show Life as a Pomegranate, as well as Yellow Birds (Alumnae Theatre’s FireWorks Festival, 2015) and A Mickey Full of Mouse (Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 2016 and Toronto Fringe, 2017). She’s currently working on adapting her unpublished dark fantasy novel A Yarn of Bone & Paper, based on her ebook: Faeries Real & Imagined: How to Create Magical Adventures for Very Young Children, into a feature film. She’s also working with director Theresa Kowall-Shipp on her short Kid Gloves, set to shoot November 2018.

As part of the funding process for Kid Gloves, Wightman self-published and sold honey be, “a collection of sweet words and some that sting,” including hand-painted covers and “surprises” stuffed inside. The first 50-volume print run sold out in about a week; and a second run will be available this month, featuring cover art design by Wightman’s daughter Sabine Spare.

Much like Wightman’s theatre work, the stories, poems and snippets in honey be range from playfully whimsical to profoundly poignant to sharply candid—often all in the same story and sometimes autobiographical in nature. While there are no titles, each piece bears an italicized post-script at the end; in some cases, these take on a conversational and even self-deprecating tone, making for a personal, intimate read.

The themes of family, motherhood and friendship come up in several pieces. There’s the story about Mrs. Kay, written from the perspective of a precocious, neglected eight-year-old who finds a home with fellow misfit schoolmate Sandra Kay and her quirky family; and the goofy four-legged family member Bella in just a dog. Reminders that family can sometimes be found in unexpected places—and to never judge a book by its cover.

There’s heart-wrenching nostalgia with an ode to her son in little boy; and remembrances of wearing an itchy baby blue Phentex dress and being her mother’s go-fer at the bingo hall, in pretty little head. And the heartache and fumbling for what to say to a friend living with cancer tumble out in the visceral when we found out you had cancer and in the outpouring of loving, supportive words in the piece that follows.

Ruminations on body image and aging come up as well, from the erotic in late summer, to the sharply candid and calling bullshit on the ridiculous expectations placed on women’s bodies—professionally and personally—in tits and ass and #chubbyprettywoman, and the #MeToo shock of new neighbour.

Quirky, bittersweet, child-like grown-up, all of the stories in honey be are tinged with humour and poignancy, and the everyday acknowledgement of life’s remarkable moments. And one gets the sense that, beyond coming from a place of truth telling—there’s a deep longing to share these words. There’s a line in the movie Shadowlands, from a C.S. Lewis quote: “We read to know we are not alone”—one could easily also say “We write to let others know they are not alone.”

Copies of honey be will be available for $20.00 via emailing wightrabiit@gmail.com; website coming soon. Wightman will be performing a reading from the book at Stratford’s SpringWorks Festival on October 11.

 

SummerWorks: Memory, nostalgia & queer men longing to connect in the quirky, charming, poignant Box 4901

Thirteen letters responding to a 1992 gay personals ad sit in a box unanswered. What does the recipient say to these men 26 years later? Memory, nostalgia, connection and hindsight figure prominently in timeshare productions’ SummerWorks presentation of novelist Brian Francis’ autobiographical Box 4901; directed by Rob Kempson and running on the Theatre Centre’s Incubator stage.

Long before the age of smartphones and Grindr, a 21-year-old Francis—then a student at the University of Western Ontario—posted a personals ad in The London Free Press looking for a connection in the small LGBTQ world of conservative London, Ontario. Of the approximately two dozen letters he received, 13 went unanswered and were discovered years later. Francis narrates and responds as 13 queer actors perform each letter.

Featuring actors Bilal Baig, Hume Baugh, Keith Cole, Izad Etemadi, Daniel Krolik, Michael Hughes, Tsholo Khalema, Eric Morin, G Kyle Shields, Chy Ryan Spain, Jonathan Tan, Chris Tsujiuchi and Geoffrey Whynot, the responses to the ad range from the bashful to the pornographic. Coming from a variety of men—ranging in age from high school senior to father figure—from various walks of life (“regular guy,” teacher, farmer, jock, “straight-acting,” leather community), the letters are sassy, charming, eloquent and humourous. The replies are frank, witty, sharply observational; and tempered with kindness, and the hindsight of age and wisdom.

There are some missed chances and missed bullets. All of these men share the same desire to reach out; longing for connection and a cure for aloneness, there’s a vulnerable authenticity in even the cockiest of responses. And the fear of being outed to family or housemates is as palpable and strong as the excitement and anticipation of a new connection.

Box 4901 has one more SummerWorks performance at the Theatre Centre on Aug 19 at 4:45 p.m.; it’s already sold out, but you can try your luck by arriving early to see if there are any no-shows.

SummerWorks: Pitching vulnerability in the frank, darkly funny, insightful …And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next

Graham Isador. Photo by Jillian Welsh.

 

How do the stories we tell about ourselves reflect on us? And how do the stories we read shape how we see the world? Pressgang Theatre explores these questions, combining journalism and theatre together as playwright/performer Graham Isador takes us on a journey of personal story pitches to BuzzFeed in …And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next. Directed by Jiv Parasram, Isador is performing in the Theatre Centre Incubator for SummerWorks.

Staged as a stand-up routine, while Isador’s solo show has elements of a comedy show, it’s a storytelling show—differentiated by a beginning, a middle, an end and a take-away. Having taken the path to writing and publishing, a piece catches the eye of the Reader editor at BuzzFeed; and he’s invited to pitch his stories, with the instruction to mine the vulnerability—for this is a key ingredient of serious writing. What follows is a challenging apprenticeship in journalism; one that is both gruelling and encouraging.

Cycling through various stories from childhood and youth to adulthood, he submits pieces torn directly from his own personal headlines: The worst day of his first job; a heart-wrenching break-up, precipitated by a horrible moment of finding out his girlfriend was cheating on him; looking after his injured mother while his father lay in a hospital bed in critical condition.

Isador is a masterful storyteller, delivering a performance that is frank, darkly funny and deeply moving. There is vulnerability in the directness, coupled with a quirky stand-up comic edge—reeling us in and keeping us at a safe distance as the storytelling takes on a confessional tone. Struggling with depression, he comes upon a chicken/egg problem: Is it these worst moments of his life that are making him depressed—or is it the telling of story after story of the worst moments of his life?

Is it true that serious journalism only includes the stories of struggle, hardship and tragedy—the awful, sad, worst moments of our lives? What do we get out of staying in bad situations? In telling those tales of personal woe? In reading them? The take-away is largely left up to us—some serious food for thought.

…And You’ll Never Believe What Happens Next has two more performances at SummerWorks: Aug 17 at 10:00 p.m. and Aug 18 at 9:00 p.m. Get advance tickets online. Last night’s show was packed, so advanced booking advised.