Whichever end of Toronto you find yourself in right now, there is an Obsidian Theatre Company production that’s worth your time. If you prefer your drama emotional, go west; if you prefer it experimental, head east.
Obsidian, which has developed one of the strongest artistic records of independent theatre companies in the country, is dedicated “to the exploration, development, and production of the Black voice.” Like all good theatrical institutions, however, it not only attempts to fulfill its mandate, but also constantly questions it.
The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble is a brand new play that Obsidian is co-producing with Factory Theatre. It is by Edmontonian Beth Graham who, at least as far as my eyes can tell, is white. The characters in the play are played by black actors, but race is never mentioned in the text. But why should the default onstage colour be white unless otherwise specified?
Obsidian artistic director Philip Akin was simply moved by Graham’s play and decided to premiere it with his company. Indeed, anyone of any background with a family history of dementia will find it impossible to make it to the end with a dry eye.
Bernice Trimble (played by the formidable Karen Robinson) calls a meeting with her three children to tell them the bad news – she has been diagnosed at 55 with early-onset Alzheimer’s. The mood around the table is particularly sombre, as they’ve recently been through this nightmare with a grandmother.
Bernice has the “gravitational pull” in this story, but it’s her middle daughter Iris (Alexis Gordon) who is in charge of narrating the events. Why that is the case – and why Iris is talking to us while nervously making a casserole – only makes sense at the end of the show. It’s alarming when all the pieces fall into place, but that doesn’t retroactively stop the storytelling structure from, a few clever touches aside, being frustrating. Iris is the least charismatic of the characters onstage in her current state, and her constant interjections are at times irritating. Graham’s strength as a dramatist is more apparent in her keenly observed scenes between Iris and her siblings, a believably bossy older sister Sara (a lively Lucinda Davis) and a solemn statistician brother, Peter (Peyson Rock, showing how less is almost always more onstage).
I don’t want to give away the twists of the plot, but Graham has penned a very timely play – and Camellia Koo’s set, made up of shelves upon shelves full of hundreds of novelty salt-and-pepper shakers (in every shape from cartoon chefs to penguins wearing scarves), subtly suggests the issues raised aren’t black and white.
At the Aki Theatre in the Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park, Obsidian is also supporting a younger company named Bound to Create’s North American premiere of dirty butterfly by the rising black British playwright debbie tucker green. (green is one of these artists who use lower-case letters in her name and the titles of her plays.) Her debut play, dirty butterfly premiered in England in 2003 under the direction of Rufus Norris; her latest, nut, just opened to raves at Britain’s National Theatre, where Norris will shortly take over as artistic director, so both are doing pretty spectacularly in terms of career trajectory.
Dirty butterfly begins in Beckettian territory with three characters in a theatrical no-man’s land of ominous walls and lines of red sand, talking about an overheard incident of domestic abuse in evasive, poetic language. Jo (Lauren Brotman) is the victim, unwilling to leave her violent lover, and challenging our sympathy with her snide treatment of others. Her neighbours Jason (Kaleb Alexander), a reclusive stutterer, and Amelia (Beryl Bain), who seems to disdain Jo for not leaving, are the other two characters, who listen in on or block out the sounds of Jo’s beatings coming through paper-thin walls.
Director Jack Grinhaus’s production is puzzling in a not unpleasant way; the acting is psychologically rooted, but physically striking – and particularly strong from Alexander, carefully contained and not stereotypical in his depiction of “slow”, and Bain, a young actor wasted in bit roles at the Shaw Festival for years who here reveals herself as potentially a major talent.
In the second half of green’s play, the setting shifts unsettlingly to a realistic location – even as the language remains disturbingly distant. Jo drags herself bleeding into the coffee shop where Amelia works as a cleaning lady and is largely ignored. One of these women is black, the other is white – and what exactly that has to do with the situation, if anything, is left to audiences to riddle out. An intriguing play and production, if not an entirely satisfying one.
The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble runs at Factory Theatre through Dec. 1. Dirty butterfly is at the Aki Theatre until Nov. 17.