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.

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A warrior’s heroic journey in the wondrous, enchanting, multidisciplinary The Monkey Queen

Diana Tso and Nicholas Eddie. Scenic design by William Yong. Costume design by Robin Fisher. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Projection design by Elysha Poirier. Photo by David Hou.

 

The Theatre Centre presents the world premiere of Red Snow Collective’s wondrous, enchanting, multidisciplinary The Monkey Queen, by Diana Tso, directed and choreographed by William Yong. A feminist re-imagining and counterpart to the well-known, beloved traditional Chinese story The Monkey King, from Wu Cheng’En’s 16th century epic Journey to the West, The Monkey Queen is mytho-biographic—part autobiography, part mythology. Part one of a trilogy, the journey takes the artist east, in search of her spiritual and ancestral roots; running parallel to the warrior’s search for enlightenment in a series of challenges and quests.

A multidisciplinary, multimedia piece of storytelling, The Monkey Queen weaves personal anecdotes from Tso’s life into the Monkey Queen’s heroic quest as artist and warrior travel their respective paths towards enlightenment and meaning. From the moment you set foot in the Incubator space, you feel transported to a place outside of time and space. The haunting, otherworldly music (composers Nick Storring and Brandon Valdivia) echoes like the sound of the spheres—soothing, hypnotic and mysterious—as the snow white set reflects the blue light (lighting design by Rebecca Picherack) from five branchless tree-like structures (emerging from the ground or descending from the sky?) that will change colour throughout. As the lights come up, you can see tufts of fluffy white snow along the ground, and waves of white origami flowers that seem to float along the upstage wall (scenic design by Yong). At times, images related to the action are projected (projection design by Elysha Poirier) on the upstage wall; conjuring up skeletal dragons, vast mountain ranges and a vast star-filled night sky.

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Diana Tso and Nicholas Eddie. Scenic design by William Yong. Costume design by Robin Fisher. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Projection design by Elysha Poirier. Photo by David Hou.

Performers Tso, who plays herself and the Monkey Queen, and Nicholas Eddie, playing her friend and a multitude of other characters—male, female, old, young, demon, god—tell the tale with movement, music and text; using their voices, posture and motion to sharply define and shift between characters. As the Monkey Queen, Tso is proud, fearless and determined as the female warrior bounds across the stars, shape shifting in the blink of an eye; and pragmatic as she comes to terms with mistakes in judgement stemming from her power and emotions. Eddie transforms from the mysterious old shaman, mentor to the Monkey Queen, to fearsome demons and dragons, to a charming, handsome prince. The performances are playful and brave, with a mischievous edge; sculpted with supple, powerful and expressive movement—all tempered with a sense of gravitas in the face of insight, enlightenment and penance.

The effect is magical; and as the tale unfolds, you may find yourself feeling like a child at story time. And despite the multimedia tech, most of the work is done by the performers—this is storytelling at its fantastic, imaginative best. And while this is a tale for children of all ages, girls will be especially gratified to see that they can be heroes too; particularly when they learn that Tso’s inspiration for writing the piece was so she could play a hero who was originally written and cast as a man.

The Monkey Queen continues at the Theatre Centre until December 2; please note the 7:30 pm curtain time. Running time 65 minutes, followed by a 15-minute Q&A with the artists. Tickets available by calling The Theatre Centre’s Box Office at 416-538-0988 or online.

In the meantime, check out the What’s On TOnight? Take Five interview with Diana Tso.

Putting the spotlight on who gets to tell the story in the hilarious, gut-wrenching, deeply moving BANG BANG

Karen Robinson, Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, Richard Zeppieri, Jeff Lillico & Sébastien Heins. Set design by Nick Blais. Costume design by Lindsay Dagger Junkin. Lighting design by Oz Weaver. Photo by Joseph Michael Photography.

 

What happens when a white playwright’s play, inspired by the shooting of an unarmed young Black man by a Black female cop, becomes a huge success destined for a Hollywood movie adaptation?

Factory Theatre presents the world premiere of Kat Sandler’s BANG BANG, directed by Sandler, assisted by Kwaku Okyere, with dramaturgy by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. Inspired by all too common headlines of innocent lives lost, the play turns a spotlight on how these stories are told and who gets to tell them.

Suspended from the force two years ago, former rookie police officer Lila (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) now lives with her mother Karen (Karen Robinson), a psychologist, and the memory of her deceased cop father. Lila’s story—and that of Derek Chambers, the young man she shot—is of particular interest to playwright Tim (Jeff Lillico), who wanted to write an important, socially relevant piece about excessive and deadly police force; and this case is unusual—and dramatically juicy—in that it involved a Black female police officer.

When Tim shows up unexpectedly at Karen’s door to see Lila one rainy day, the reason for his visit is even more of a surprise than his arrival. His play Hands Up was a huge success and is being turned into a Hollywood movie. And they’re about to have another surprise visitor: actor Jackie (Sébastien Heins), who’ll be playing the police officer—and whose arrival is abruptly heralded by security detail Tony (Richard Zeppieri). And just when you thought things couldn’t get any weirder, amidst a morning of day drinking (all except Karen), Lila decides that they need to do selected readings of the play, insisting that this will be helpful for her. And that’s when shit gets really real.

Outstanding work from the ensemble on this roller coaster ride of ideas, emotions and storytelling. Robinson brings both ferocity and vulnerability to Karen, a protective mother and a sharp, wry-witted professional. Willing to do whatever’s necessary to shield her daughter from harm, Karen also struggles with how Lila’s actions reflect on her. As Lila, Roberts-Abdullah rides the edge of good-humoured self-deprecation and hopeless despair. Lost and isolated, and putting on as brave a face as she can, Lila is haunted by the shooting, nursing her pain with outbursts of edgy humour and sliding into day drinking as she tries to make it through the day.

Lillico’s multilayered performance as Tim gives us a driven, ambitious and socially awkward young man who longs to make a name for himself as much as he wants to make a social statement. Although he has no ties to the community or profession that are key components of the story, Tim feels entitled to tell it—and feels justified in researching the finer details through Google and interviews. Caught up in his own growing celebrity, does he even know who or what he’s writing this for anymore?

Heins is an energetic ball of fire as Jackie—and does an excellent job with the public and private faces of celebrity. An extroverted master of put-on sincerity, and referring to himself in the third person on the one hand, Jackie also gives a genuinely passionate account of a play he saw that also tells the story of a police shooting of an innocent Black youth. Driven and ambitious like Tim, Jackie is also biracial and more socially astute than his former Disney child star turned wannabe serious actor persona might indicate. Zeppieri is an irreverent, foul-mouthed delight as Tony; a former cop himself and a bull in a china shop socially speaking, Tony has some surprisingly gentle qualities beneath that gruff, macho exterior. And he gives a hilarious read of the Hands Up stage directions.

Who gets to tell these stories—and how and when? And what kind of impact will the telling have on the immediate audience and the public at large? Rarely do you get to see a play that makes you think, laugh, puts you on the edge of your seat and moves you to tears like BANG BANG.

The design team has created a marvelous, theatrical environment for this play within a play journey: from the visible props tables in the unmasked wings that flank the gorgeous living room set (set by Nick Blais) and lighting scaffolding (lighting by Oz Weaver), to the snippets of epic, sweeping soundtracks that emerge throughout (sound by Verne Good).

BANG BANG continues in the Factory Theatre mainspace until February 18; advance tickets strongly recommended.