Some theatre cancellations get more attention than others these days, you may have noticed.
The Shaw Festival’s decision to cancel an outdoor run of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Assassins in concert earlier this summer after rights holders objected to the theatre company’s removal of a racial slur from the lyrics, for instance, generated a lot of chatter online.
This is because it seemed to fit into a narrative about “cancel culture” – whether or not the actual complicated situation qualified.
By contrast, Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre’s recent cancellation of its season-opening production of Topdog/Underdog – another American classic that controversially depicts the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – has not generated the same level of commentary.
I think it’s worth talking about too, however.
Blue Bridge, a classics-oriented company in Victoria, sent out a press release last week announcing that it was replacing Suzan-Lori Parks’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning play about two African-American brothers named Booth and Lincoln with Terrence McNally’s 1987 play Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.
Artistic director Brian Richmond said in the release that his theatre company strives to “match great plays with the best of contemporary interpreters” – and that it was unable to do so in the case of Topdog/Underdog.
I was curious to know more about exactly what that meant as nearby Vancouver has seen two productions of Parks’s play in the past five years – one from the indie company Seven Tyrants, the other at the Arts Club.
So I reached out to Richmond. In an e-mail, the artistic director clarified the Topdog/Underdog cancellation was ultimately due to being unable to find a suitable director who was available.
“I felt that, given my (regrettably) thin knowledge of the Black acting community across Canada, it was vital to find a director for the production who had a broader knowledge of this community than I currently possess,” Richmond wrote. “After a number of unsuccessful availability checks on directors, I began to lose faith that we would succeed in finding a professional creative team (including actors) for the play in time for the rehearsals beginning on October 5.”
An additional factor was that Richmond felt it was becoming likely that the entire creative team would need to be brought in from outside Victoria – and his company could not afford that right now especially, he wrote, given that the city is “experiencing a short-term housing crisis.”
The Topdog/Underdog cancellation is worth highlighting because it shines a light on a longer-term and more pervasive problem regarding what gets produced and what doesn’t in Canadian theatre.
Audiences here have a historically warped view of contemporary American drama, for instance, due to theatre companies finding it easier and cheaper to produce award-winning plays by white playwrights about white characters.
And that’s not just in smaller cities such as Victoria. Topdog/Underdog took a decade to be produced in Toronto after winning the Pulitzer, while other winners of that prize from the same era, including Proof and I Am My Own Wife, were programmed right away.
Likewise, Anna in the Tropics, the 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner by playwright Nilo Cruz about a Cuban-American family, has never been seen in Toronto to my knowledge – while the two plays that were runners-up for the Pulitzer that year (Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? and Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out) were both produced by Canadian Stage within a couple of years.
Times are supposed to have changed. Last summer, like many theatre companies across the country, Blue Bridge posted a statement declaring that Black Lives Matter on social media; just a year later, however, the company has cancelled the only work by a Black playwright in its season.
It’s a small, but significant reminder that the systemic issues in Canadian theatre aren’t going to disappear overnight – or in a year.
The Indigenous Theatre at the National Arts Centre, which had its first season shortened by the pandemic, is back up and running with in-person performances in Ottawa this week.
Okinum, written and acted by the multilingual Émilie Monnet, is being performed in its English version from September 14 to 16 and in its French version on September 17 and 18. The title means “dam” in Anishnaabemowin – which is also spoken in this show described as “an ode to reclaiming language and reconnecting to one’s ancestors.”
Another theatre company resuming in-person performances this week is Neptune Theatre in Halifax.
Fully Committed, a 1999 one-person comedy by Becky Mode about a struggling actor whose day job is taking reservations for a high-end restaurant in Manhattan, is the show getting the honour.
Mode updated the script for a Broadway run in 2016 that starred Jesse Tyler Ferguson of Modern Family fame; Breton Lalama stars in the Neptune production directed by artistic director Jeremy Webb.
I do regret that my summer in Stratford came to an end before Ryan G. Hinds could open his #KanderAndEbb show in the cabaret space in the Tom Patterson Theatre.
Hinds’s personal tribute to the Broadway songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago) is only running in person from September 14 to 18. (The performer’s interviews with Kander and Tony Award-winning actress Chita Rivera, however, are accessible from anywhere through the Stratfest@Home streaming service.)
Hinds sent me a touching personal story about how #KanderandEbb, a show he’s previously performed on the Fringe circuit, ended up at the Stratford Festival after he reached out to artistic director Antoni Cimolino.
“Days before she died 10 months ago, my mother told me to try and get Stratford interested in the show because it was her favorite of my work and she was so proud of it,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I took a chance in contacting Antoni, thinking he wouldn’t be interested. … Being at Stratford is an incredible final gift from my mother.”
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