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.

Facing death with dignity, humour & love in the thoughtful, sharply funny, moving A Better Place

a-better-place
Rachel Cairns, Catherine Gardner, Ian Ronningen & Kris Langille in A Better Place – photo by Bruce Peters

LilyRose Productions opened Ramona Baillie’s A Better Place, directed by Barbara Larose, with assistant director Ellen Green, in the Factory Theatre Studio last night. Based on a true story, A Better Place takes us on the 14-month journey of a woman faced with a devastating medical diagnosis.

Stella Russo (Kris Langille) is an active 55-year-old who loves singing in her Catholic church choir and bowling in the community league. Then she learns that she has ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s disease)—a rapid degenerative neurological disease that attacks the nerves that control voluntary muscles—and her life, and perspective on death, changes drastically. There is no cure and she doesn’t have long to live.

As Stella works to cope with the side effects of chemo treatments and a body that’s no longer working properly, never knowing what’s going to go next and terrified of finding herself unable to breathe, her BFF Dee (Catherine Gardner), boyfriend Bill (Edward Heeley) and doctor daughter Kate (Rachel Cairns) must also come to terms with her ultimately fatal condition. Meanwhile, Kate is struggling with personal issues of her own; her focus on her work at the hospital has come at the expense of her marriage, leaving her musician husband Zack (Ian Ronningen) feeling abandoned.

When Stella decides she wants to die on her own terms, she encounters resistance from her neurologist Dr. Green (Jillian Rees-Brown), who insists she join a support group; and dogma from parish priest Father Perez (Isai Rivera Blas), who will withhold last rites and warns that she’ll forfeit her place in heaven. Her close friends and family have mixed feelings, and her young streetwise choir friend Chris (Ngabo Nabea) is willing to offer assistance, but even he’s only willing to go so far.

Nice work from the cast on this thought-provoking and poignant piece that doesn’t get too down on itself, with a script that’s infused with cheeky, at times dark, humour. Beyond various cast members merely schlepping furniture and props about, the staging has the ensemble gathering to assist in Stella’s transformation from health to disability.

Langille gives a marathon performance as Stella. Navigating the physical and emotional challenges of this devastating disease, Stella is a fighter who makes that final choice in the spirit of living with purpose and dying on her own terms.

Other stand-outs include Gardner’s wise-cracking Dee; a dear, loyal friend when times are tough, even the super positive, supportive Dee must come to terms with a sense of loss as Stella’s condition deteriorates. Cairns gives Kate a great sense of inner conflict; a surgeon who relies on logic and reason, she finds herself forced to feel tumultuous emotion as she braces herself for the inevitable death of her mother and works her way back into her marriage.

Ronningen brings a sweet, open-heartedness to Zack; supportive of Kate’s career, he’s troubled to find himself alone in their marriage—and he can only take so much isolation. And Nabea does a great job in two very different roles; as Chris, in a lovely two-hander scene with Stella as he realizes what she’s intending; and as the cynical bartender Rick, advising Zack to look long and hard at how Kate’s treating him.

With shouts to Rick Jones’ sound design, which features snippets of popular love songs played during the scene changes, with the song selections getting progressively more introspective and melancholy as the play progresses. And to stage manager Margot “Mom” Devlin for keeping it all together and moving along from the booth.

Facing death with dignity, humour and love in the thoughtful, sharply funny and moving A Better Place.

A Better Place continues in the Factory Theatre Studio until Dec 11; get your advance tix online or by calling 416-504-9971.

The run includes three special post-performance presentations:

Thurs, Dec 1: A panel discussion with lawyer Shelley Birenbaum and Dr. Fred Besik, moderated by Mardi Tindal, on the legality and morality of compassionate deaths.

Sun, Dec 4: Don Valley West MP Rob Oliphant, who is also Co-Chair of the House of Commons and Senate Special Joint Committee on Physician-Assisted Dying, joins the director, playwright and cast for a talkback.

Wed, Dec 7: Q&A with the director, playwright and cast.