Freedom of expression & political oppression in a digital age in the chilling, intersectional, provocative Theory

Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

 

Under what circumstances should freedom of expression be censored or policed? At what point does politics, however liberal or progressive, become unforgiving and oppressive? Tarragon Theatre’s production of Norman Yeung’s Theory, directed by Esther Jun, assisted by Stephanie Williams, examines the impact of film and social media on modern-day discourse through an intersectional lens, where academia meets art—with chilling and provocative results.

I saw the genesis of Theory, first as a reading at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival and then as a full production at SummerWorks, back in 2010. It appeared again at Alumnae during FireWorks Festival 2013—at which point, at the suggestion of dramaturge Shirley Barrie, lead character Isabelle’s boyfriend was re-written as a female character. I missed the 2013 production, but was happy to see the evolution of the piece in the current Tarragon presentation, where Isabelle has a wife who is also a person of colour.

Rookie film studies prof Isabelle (Sascha Cole, in the role from the very beginning) has set up an online message board off the campus server—a bit of a rogue move that becomes even more so with an ‘anything goes’ policy. Her film theory students will self-moderate and there are no plans for censorship. And, in a classic Dead Poets Society moment, she has her students tear out the film screening list from the syllabus—full of white male directors—and replaces it with a more diverse, contemporary list. Even her core group of vocal, engaged students—Davinder (Bilal Baig), Safina (Asha James), Richard (Kyle Orzech) and Jorge (Anthony Perpuse)—have questions and misgivings about the nature of the message board and revised film list, which includes the controversial Baise Moi, translated into Rape Me in an English release.

Isabelle’s wife Lee (Audrey Dwyer)—a Black, tenured prof at the same university—also has reservations about the student message board; and like her, one can’t help but wonder if Isabelle is trying too hard to look cool and connect with her students as adults and academics. Racist and homophobic remarks begin to emerge on the message board—presented onstage via projection (design by Cameron Davis)—some of which are directed at other students.  And, while Isabelle insists that nothing offends her and refuses to censor the board—viewing the remarks in the context of fodder for adult, academic conversation and exploration—some of her students don’t see it that way.

Video messages start appearing, at first referencing films the class is studying, then getting increasingly graphic and violent, and directed toward Isabelle. Becoming obsessed with finding out who the perpetrator is, the strain on Isabelle and her relationship with Lee starts to show; she keeps putting off their plans to have a baby and starts spending an inordinate amount of time on the message board.

As the messages get more personal and close to home, showing up in her personal email, text messages and even on her doorstep, Isabelle blocks a user called @Richard69 and turns to department head Owen (Fabrizio Filippo) to see if she can launch a complaint or investigation to learn the identity of the student. It’s during this meeting that she learns there’s been a complaint launched against her. Isabelle begins to suspect the culprit is among her core group of students, but has no solid proof.

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Sascha Cole & Audrey Dwyer. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Outstanding work from the cast in this chilling multi-media psychological thriller. There’s a taut scholarly edge in Cole’s performance of Isabelle; and an awkwardness in Isabelle’s attempts to connect with her students on a laid back, personal level. Under pressure to make tenure, Isabelle must walk the line between provoking thought and keeping her students and  superiors happy. Dwyer’s good-humoured academic veteran Lee goes beyond being a great foil and complement to Cole’s Isabelle—she’s the sociopolitical conscience in the relationship and in the piece. A supportive and nurturing partner, Lee has no trouble calling Isabelle out when she’s neglecting their relationship or forgetting to check her privilege. Filippo gives a great turn as the cool guy department head Owen; like Isabelle, he’s invested in keeping everyone happy—but his flip, hip dude exterior belies the institutional administrator who must also answer to higher powers in the university.

Really nice, sharply drawn work from the student chorus. Baig’s sassy, queer South Asian Davinder and James’ earnest, politically aware Safina (Asha James), who is Black, are particularly aware of and sensitive to the homophobic and racist remarks posted online; and Safina is uncomfortable with some of the course content. Both are open and willing to expand their minds and engage in debate; but they understandably draw the line at hate messaging. Perpuse brings a fun class clown energy to Jorge, who posits that porn should be given equal consideration with other genres. And Orzech’s nerdy, curious Richard seems affable enough, but there’s a dark undercurrent to this curious, white kid as he pleads “context” to his observations on films featuring storytelling filtered through a racist lens.

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Bilal Baig, Anthony Perpuse, Asha James, Kyle Orzech & Sascha Cole. Set & lighting design by Joe Pagnan. Projection design by Cameron Davis. Costume design by Michelle Bohn. Photo by Cylla von Teidemann.

Isabelle realizes that she’s underestimated the power of a digital media and the accompanying anonymity of user names, which make for an easy, consequence-free platform for hate speech and intolerance; and she’s forced to examine her inconsistent handling of conversation that veers toward hate speech. Her progressive feminist liberal politics and attempts at provoking thought have pushed buttons and opened a Pandora’s box of alt-right ill will. Is she complicit in fostering oppression by holding back on deleting racist and homophobic comments? Timely in its recognition of alt-right backlash, Theory reminds us of the inevitable pendulum backswing on progressive sociopolitical change.

Theory continues in the Tarragon Extraspace until November 25. Get advance tickets online or by calling the box office at 416-531-1827.

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Interview: Blues singer/songwriter & actor Carolyn Fe

Carolyn Fe, Sugat Ko cover. Photo by litratista.com

 

Carolyn Fe is a multi-talented, award-winning actress, blues singer/songwriter and host of the online syndicated radio show Unsung and On the Side. I had the pleasure of getting to know her while she was in Toronto, performing in the Nightwood Theatre/Sulong Theatre co-production of the world premiere of Audrey Dwyer’s Calpurnia, presented at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre back in January/February. Fe won the 2018 Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress for her compelling, poignant and funny portrayal of the family’s housekeeper Precy.

Between 2009 and 2014, she released three award-winning self-produced blues CDs: 100%, Original Sin and Bad Taboo. After taking a hiatus from her music career, she’s back with a deeply personal recording of original songs in Sugat Ko (My Wound in Tagalog)—to be launched on August 1, 2018 on CD Baby. Sugat Ko features the music talents of the Collective: Ivan Garzon (guitar), Brandon Goodwin (drums, percussion, vocals), Jean-Francois Hamel (guitar) and Oisin Little (bass). Guest musicians include Frank Gallant (bass), Sam Robinson (bass) and Gabriel Tremblay (drums).

Full of passion, anger, compassion and candid observations, Sugat Ko is an authentic, moving, evocative collection of original songs—delivered with rich, smooth vocals that shift from mysterious to powerful to tender. I asked Carolyn Fe about the record—and the road that led her to create it.

Hi Carolyn. Thanks for taking some time out of your busy schedule to talk about Sugat Ko. This album is a major milestone for you: It marks your return to music after a four-year hiatus following the sudden loss of your friend and manager Barry Mell just before the release of Bad Taboo. You spoke about how things fell apart during that time, and how there was a significant shift within the band—and things were adrift for a while. Tell us about what brought you back. What was your inspiration to carry on and keep making music?

In all my endeavours, my approach is “do or die”. Making art; whether it be music, theatre, acting, writing, etc. equates to me breathing and feeling alive. There were times when I really wanted to throw in the towel, but I knew I had to keep going. The lyrics I had written meant a lot to me. I was hurting. I needed to keep writing; I needed to keep making music. I was feeling quite lost and alone. All those feelings of loss, pain and struggle kept me writing. Even though I was depressed, I was feeling alive (if you know what I mean). Words kept pouring out of me.

I met a lot of great musicians, but the connection/synergy wasn’t there until I found the ones who are with me right now: Jean-Francois Hamel (guitar), Ivan Garzon (guitar), Brandon Goodwin (drums & percussion), Oisin Little (bass, my muse who has been with me for 3 albums’ worth – Original Sin, Bad Taboo and now, Sugat Ko). When the five of us finally got together, my gut instincts told me that I can breathe with these gentlemen. They created a safe place for me to allow me to say and sing what I needed to say and sing. I also have Angie Arsenault who stuck by me through the tough times, she is a producer (prog rock and metal) – but first and foremost, she’s a friend who endured my whining through the tough times. She played all the instruments on “Prayer”.

This record is also a deeply personal reflection of your life and Philippine roots—a music offering that is profoundly soul-searching and revealing at the same time. And the songs on this record cover a broad emotional range, from pain, to passion, to playful and even prayerful. “Howzat” sounds like a wry Devil’s Advocate response to “Summertime”—a big contrast to the melancholy “Prayer”, the final track. What was the process of writing and recording like for you on this project?

For the longest time, since the creation of the debut EP 100% in 2008-2009, I was looking for a particular sound and it wasn’t a mainstream 12-bar blues sound. But I was also looking at my entrance to the music world from a business point of view. I needed to be careful in “instructing” the audience about what I was going to build (and also maybe I was chicken, insecure and afraid to assert myself, caring too much what “they” may think). So what I did was to “come in” with a standard blues-rock sound to get the auditors’ attention. You can hear the gradual evolution of where I wanted to be in a few songs as the new albums came out. The words/lyrics were true (you’ll note that there are religious connotations in most of my lyrics), but I was still reserved. It took life’s changes to finally find my footing and Sugat Ko is the result. Deep, deep lyrics from my heart, soul and essence of my being – all that, with no holds barred.

“Howzat” was the cacophony that was going on in my head during the four years that I had to keep a good face and smile at the world. I was dying on the inside; it was as if everything I touched went wrong. So yeah, this song talks about murdering and burying that mess, “she runs out into the garden with her Jimmy Choo’s sinking into the grass, cement, that’s all she can think of…cement, what a ride…oh baby hush now, don’t you cry, hush, hush baby, just give it a sigh”. Once buried, I moved on.

“Prayer” was me at my most desperate moments. It’s all about choice. We have choices and although on the surface it sounds like a call for help, it’s actually the complete opposite of asking for help. Prayer is a cry to die. It is also a song that is dedicated to a friend who passed away from cancer. She was in pain and there were moments when she wanted to end it. When I wrote this song, I wasn’t “intimate” enough with my new musicians, at least not yet. My friend, Angie Arsenault, and I were talking a lot of the difficult times. She had padded shoulders that I could lean on when I needed. Then it occurred to me to ask her to collaborate on the song as she knew exactly where my mindset was. She played all the instruments on “Prayer”.

Writing a song in an intimate process for me. There are times when I will already have the lyrics and will sit with only one of my musicians, who I call my Stage Husbands (because of the intimate process of writing). Other times, I would write the lyrics on the spot while they play along and understand the vibe of the tune. But for me, it is always a one on one process to create a song.

Sugat Ko draws on gospel and rock in a beautiful, moving fusion with the blues that complement the lyrics and take the listener on an emotional rollercoaster ride. Did you map out these arrangements ahead of time, on a song-by-song basis—or was it more of an organic process as you and the band worked together in the studio?

Actually, no. I treated each song as their own entity and let my gut instinct own the process, as well as organize it. Once the basic skeleton of the song is done after the one-on-one writing sessions with a stage hubby, then we would all get together and make the arrangement of the song. That’s the part where they all get technical while I listen to my gut feelings to make sure the vibe and soundscape is right.

You’ve been working on a 5th album, Cover My Bass, a collection of cover songs. What can you tell us about that record?

A while back, I saw Dalannah Gail Bowen and her bassist, Owen Owen Owen (nope, that’s not a repetitive keystroke error, that is his name) perform. They’re from British Columbia. I was so inspired!!! Here’s a woman pushing towards her 70s with this younger man on bass. It was an odd pair, but just her voice and his bass was music to my ears. Whenever we hear of duos, it’s mostly voice/guitar or voice/piano. I have never heard of voice and bass. I was hooked and inspired. It took me a long time to find a bass player who could jive with me. Frank Gallant was introduced to me by my drummer, Brandon Goodwin. Frank and I hit it off. He understood what I wanted to do.

I am not fond of doing cover songs. There are so many artists out there doing it, so I will leave it to them. BUT this 5th album (an EP actually) is already complete. TADA! I am just waiting for Sugat Ko to mature and establish itself before I take out Cover My Bass, which is a collection of old, old songs unfamiliar songs and we do it as a duet: voice and bass.

Anything else you want to shout out?

I want to talk about how special my stage husbands are. Aside from Oisin Little (bass), we’ve been together for about two and a half years now. I am so grateful for having them with me. They are instrumental in bringing my confidence back. I never considered myself a musician. Yeah, I write the lyrics and I sing the lyrics. When other players would just say, “Let her sing, we’ll do the music part”, these gentlemen, my stage hubbies, brought me to a place where I never knew I belonged. They stopped and asked what my lyrics were about, they played and played until they understood the soundscapes that I was looking for; and once we found it, they pushed it further. They created a safe space for me to explore. This is why Sugat Ko is so important for me because every song on that album is me in the raw. They created the space so I can allow me to be myself. Also, I want to give a shout out to my stage hubbies’ life partners who quietly stood by their side, at times rescheduling vacations and special occasions, so that we can create.

Now, for the fun part of the interview. I’d like to finish up with James Lipton’s Pivot questionnaire:

What’s your favourite word?

Yes

What’s your least favourite word?

Can’t

What turns you on?

Heart-full people that I resonate with. Pushing my envelope. Thinking, creating and doing things – not out of the box but – without a box. Challenges that make me feel alive. Doing. Pastries and sea food.

What turns you off?

Routine. Folks who don’t get out of their comfort zone and then whine about their regrets (HEY! It’s not too late, you can still do it). Folks who say, “It’s always been done that way”. Racism and discrimination really burns my butt.

What sound or noise do you love?

The inhale/exhale of satisfaction from a job well done.

What sound or noise do you hate?

It’s almost like a cartoon; the sound of screeching brakes in my head when fear overcomes me.

What is your favourite curse word?

I have too many, but the F-bomb usually starts it off, followed by other choice words (e.g., F’ing Toe Crud, F’ing butt cheese, etc.).

What profession other than your own would you like to pursue?

I’ve had and have many professions. In no particular order: Ballerina, Contemporary Dancer, Choreographer, Technical Recruiter & Human Resources Generalist, Marketing Specialist, Hair Stylist (which I still do and love – I went to school for it), Singer/Songwriter, Actor, Radio Host, Business owner, Corporate Consultant, Caregiver, etc.

What profession would you not like to do?

I tried, but I am not a good housekeeper.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Ha! The question doesn’t say “…finally arrive at the Pearly Gates”. So I think, this is what God would ask me: “Are you done yet or do you wanna go back again?”

Thanks, Carolyn!

Thank you – and the hugs I am saving in my back pocket for you are gathering compounded interest again.

 

Toronto theatre audiences fell in love with Carolyn Fe and her performance in Calpurnia—and the feeling is mutual. Fe and her husband are looking to move from Montreal to Toronto in the near future, where we’ll have even more chances to see her perform live.

You can keep up with Carolyn Fe on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Keep your eyes and ears out for Sugat Ko on CD Baby on August 1.

 

The Penelopiad is back!

Nightwood Theatre’s much lauded production of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, directed by Kelly Thornton, is back for a remount starting tonight (Jan 8) and runs until February 10 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. The remarkable all-female cast includes Megan Follows, Maev Beaty, Neema Bickersteth, Fiona Byrne, Sarah Dodd, Monica Dottor, Audrey Dwyer, Nicole Joy-Fraser, Kelli Fox, Cara Gee, Patricia Hamilton, Pamela Sinha and Sophia Walker.

If you didn’t catch the run last year, get out and see this – or come out and see it again.

Here’s the trailer for the 2013 production: