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.

Toronto Fringe: Fear & loathing in the workplace in the razor-sharp, brutally honest dark comedy The Huns

Breanna Dillon, Cass Van Wyck & Jamie Cavanagh. Set & costume consulting by Alexandra Lord. Photo by Steven McLellan.

 

One Four One Collective presents The Huns, a razor-sharp, timely new play by Michael Ross Albert, directed by Marie Farsi and running in the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre. It’s all hands on deck, after a break-in at a tech company office; and an international conference call meeting devolves into local power plays and startling revelations in this darkly funny, brutally honest workplace comedy.

It’s Friday morning and office manager Iris (Breanna Dillon), recently returned from leave, has gathered colleagues Pete (Jamie Cavanagh) and Shelley (Cass Van Wyck), a contract interim office manager, into a boardroom for an international conference call meeting to communicate and troubleshoot last night’s office break-in at their location. Ironically, this is a tech company; and Iris, who is not happy with the technical issues thwarting her attempts at projecting her presentation onto their flat-screen TV, is having a terse conversation with IT. Pete, who was in the office during the break-in, is technically on vacation and has a plane to catch for his destination bachelor party; and Shelley is calmly standing by, playing peacemaker, smoothing over rough patches, and ready to jump in to assist in any way she can.

Dialled into the meeting are colleagues from offices in Montreal, Texas and London (voice-over by Claire Armstrong, Blue Bigwood-Mallin, Izad Etemadi, Marie Farsi, David Lafontaine, Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster, Emilie Leclerc, Daniel Pagett, Tyrone Savage, Andy Trithardt, Jenni Walls and Richard Young—sound design by Trithardt). CEO Roman is otherwise engaged in London, so his VP wife Leanne has dialled in from a windy outdoor location, adding to the technical comedy of errors. On top of all of this, the office dealing with broken A/C, a garbage strike and various other issues around having just moved into an old building.

Things devolve pretty quickly once it’s revealed that the meeting is about something way more serious than just a handful of stolen laptops. And things get even more brutal for the gang around the table when—believing everyone has left the conference call—Iris comes after Shelley in a power play aimed at destroying any favour or credibility that Shelley has garnered during her few weeks in the position. This is exacerbated by Pete’s confirmation of Iris’s suspicions that everyone likes Shelley and wants her to stay on, including Roman. And things go from bad to worse when other, deeply personal, revelations emerge.

Outstanding work from the cast, including those on the phone, bringing sharply drawn, fully-rounded performances that could easily descend into caricature. Dillon does a remarkable job with Iris’s tightly wound, controlling edge—offset by her fears of being usurped by a new, younger employee. Iris’s put-on, chirpy corporate tone and take-charge demeanour belie her dread of being replaced and resentment over being undervalued. Cavanagh is a likeable goof of a bro as Pete, who may come off like a jack-ass who only cares about himself, but actually does care about his job and his colleagues. If Pete really didn’t think he needed to be there for this meeting, he’d be heading to the airport. And Van Wyck’s performance as Shelley unpacks a calm, cool, professional vibe that gradually reveals feelings of desperation and being adrift, not to mention brutally honest insights about the corporate world in general. Shelley’s “good servant” but circumspect professionalism contrasts nicely with Iris’s sense of entitlement and resentment. And does Iris really love her job—or is that just something she tells herself to make all the pain and sacrifice bearable?

While a corporate office environment may talk the good talk about a collegial professional attitude of teamwork, loyalty and meritocracy, this can often be a bullshit façade for the office politics realities of back-stabbing, power-grabbing and favouritism. Knowing and accepting this may help ease the soul-sucking nature of workaday life—but, despite needing to work for a living, we all need to ask ourselves how much toxicity we can suck up for a paycheque.

The Huns continues in the Streetcar Crowsnest Guloien Theatre for three more performances: July 11 at 5:30, July 12 at 10:15 and July 14 at 4:00; check the show page for advance tickets. Book ahead for this one folks; these guys are selling out.