Science fiction is not as alien a genre to the world of theatre as you might think. Indeed, we just passed exactly 100 years from the Prague premiere of the first significant sci-fi play: R.U.R., an international hit by Czech playwright Karel Capek that introduced the word “robot” to the English language.
When Capek’s 1921 play was later adapted by the BBC, it became the first science fiction ever broadcast on television – and, obviously, from that point on, stories set in the future then took root a little more firmly on screen than on stage.
21 Black Futures, a collection of ten-minute one-person plays written for Toronto’s Obsidian Theatre, filmed at Toronto’s Meridian Hall and now streaming on CBC Gem, is a project notable for a number of reasons. But a less obvious one is that it is one of the most sizable commissions of new science fiction from playwrights ever.
It wasn’t explicitly designed that way, mind you. Last year, with the pandemic having shut down theatres and the Black Lives Matter movement active in the streets, Obsidian’s artistic director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu challenged Black playwrights in Canada to write short scripts in response to the question: “What is the future of Blackness?”
It just happens that many of those who answered the most impressively did so in the dramatic form of sci-fi known as Afrofuturism – the genre’s Black, socially conscious cousin.
Rebirth of the Afronauts: A Black Space Odyssey is one of the more transporting of these 21 “filmed monodramas.” Written by Toronto emcee and playwright Motion, and directed by Jerome Kruin, the piece offers all the fun and flow of an early noughties music video.
Set in Toronto 40 years from now, Rebirth follows Chariott (Chelsea Russell) on a mysterious journey after curfew the night before the very first Reparations Day in Canada. A young Black woman, she rides a bus full of now-elderly b-girls in “tats and tracksuits,” evades police drones by following a cloaked figure through a ravine, and ends up on a subway that turns into a spaceship (truly “riding the rocket”).
A metaphorical and metaphysical exploration of repairing the past versus breaking free from it, perhaps? Motion’s entertaining play is one of the 21 Black Futures most open to interpretation – and Russell sells it, playing multiple parts with well-calibrated senses of wonder and humour.
The Death News, by Governor-General Award-winning playwright Amanda Parris (Other Side of the Game), is set in a more easily deciphered dystopia. In this future, Black men and women pre-record obituaries so that they have some control over the narrative after their demise – which, it’s implied, are still disproportionately sudden or violent, and likely to be filtered through sensation and stereotype by the media.
A young man named Dante, played by the tremendous Lovell Adams-Gray (who exploded onto the scene in Soulpepper’s 2018 production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), heads in to pre-record his obit after losing a loved one. But, as he rehearses it, he reconsiders how or even whether he wants to remembered. “What if I am a stereotype?” he asks himself. “Is it irresponsible to tell my story then?”
The future depicted in Lisa Codrington’s The Prescription is seemingly more progressive for Black people – but that comes with its own conundrums.
A unnamed patient (Akosua Amo-Adem) is about to undergo a new medical procedure called Open Your Big Black Mouth (OYBBM) – a treatment that will allow her the “time and space” to speak her mind after a lifetime of lugging around the unsaid.
Codrington, who you may know from the TV series Letterkenny but should also know from such smart satirical metatheatre as The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God (seen at the Shaw Festival in 2016), has dreamed up a social-justice-obsessed society where misogynists are marked with mascara – and minds can be literally blown (up) by revelations of racism.
Nevertheless, the protagonist of her mini-play still hesitates to let loose. What are the side effects of the OYBBM treatment if, say, regime change makes listening to Black people no longer mandatory? The last we see her, she’s still reading the fine print – and aware of how the past will still be present in any future.
There are still systems to fight in these Black futures – from the outside, or in. The wryly titled 40 Parsecs and Some Fuel begins with one very polite rebel entering a lab holding a boombox in one hand and a ray gun in the other. “Apologies for my bluntness, but I must make this appeal,” he says. “My name is Satchel Dew and it’s about to get real.”
Written in hip-hop verse by Omari Newton, this short drama sees Black engineer Satchel (Daniel Faraldo) commandeer a spaceship he helped design for the Canadian military, something he now regrets. “Pavlov would applaud the performance of this Black dog,” he chastises himself, while showing off a flair for assonance.
While I admired the cleverness of Newton’s writing, another theatrical child of hip-hop, Joseph Jomo Pierre, reminded me of his ability to deliver deep emotional impact through rhythmic dialogue in Builders of Nations.
This monologue stars Philip Akin, Obsidian’s former artistic director, as a 100-year-old sculptor conceived in 2008 on “Obama night.” As he chisels away at a final masterpiece, he talks to his son about what he’s seen in his life. Even as he is weighed down by personal loss, he cautions against turning away too far from the past. “If you let them, they will break the nose off the Sphinx,” he warns.
We live in a time when the past seems to have flattened into the present – and Pierre, like the best sci-fi and the best work in 21 Black Futures, brings the future into the conversation to help navigate that.
Keep up to date with the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.