Written and created by: Sook-Yin Lee
Directed by: Sarah Garton Stanley
Performed by: Sook-Yin Lee and Christo Graham
Venue: Canadian Stage in Toronto
Runs to: March 31, 2019
What’s safe to say or put on a stage in these allegedly timorous times? Quite a bit, as it turns out.
In Unsafe, Sook-Yin Lee’s entertainingly out-there documentary performance about censorship and its various speech-stifling siblings at Canadian Stage, the former CBC Radio host and MuchMusic VJ gleefully breaks a number of taboos that once might get a theatre shut down in Toronto.
She takes off her clothes and sings a snippet of Let the Sunshine In, shows a picture she took of her excrement and plays a few clips from Shortbus, the 2006 film with non-simulated sex that she starred in.
Of course, this all feels like old hat, the type of thing that’d cause a scandal in 1969 (when the morality squad showed up at the Toronto premiere of Hair), or 1980 (when choreographer/dancer Marie Chouinard peed in a bucket at the Art Gallery of Ontario) or 2003 (when the CBC threatened to fire Lee after she was cast in Shortbus).
Where Unsafe starts to feel genuinely unsafe in this year of our lord 2019, when audience members visibly tense up in their seats, is when Lee broaches certain topics and talks freely about the institutions she has worked for.
Lee’s account of a CBC manager standing on a couch to warn employees not to post anything on social media about the former Q host Jian Ghomeshi in 2014, for instance.
Or her on-camera interrogation of former Canadian Stage artistic director Matthew Jocelyn about his programming of the #CanStageSoWhite season two years ago – and his invocation of something called “reverse colonialism.”
“Am I just a box tick?” Lee asks a visibly nervous Jocelyn, in a video projected above the stage in director Sarah Garton Stanley’s multimedia production.
Unsafe explores artistic freedom by dramatizing and exploring its own creation – and the challenges Lee and playwright Zack Russell faced along the way to making a show about censorship (and those that they did not).
It goes beyond clickbait-y questions about political correctness to consider who is excluded from the creation of art, and how people get included in it; who leaves a project partway through, and who stays silent or decides not to participate; who gets credit and who doesn’t.
The playfully provocative performance was actually born without Lee’s involvement. A couple of years ago, Jocelyn commissioned Russell to write something themed around the arrest of Toronto painter Eli Langer in the early 1990s under Canada’s then-new child-pornography laws.
Russell expanded the idea and brought on Lee as a collaborator – but the two quickly clashed over the form of what they were creating. She doesn’t understand his need to have control over a subject through fiction; he doesn’t think interviews are art.
In Unsafe, we see these arguments and other behind-the-scenes power struggles as if they are happening in real time on stage.
Russell, who is white and little-known, tells Lee that he’d like his name to come first in the credits because the show originated with him and is a major break for him.
But Lee, who is not white but is well-known, tells Russell that she wants her name to go first so it doesn’t seem like she was hired to make the show more politically palatable than if it were one by “a white guy hired by a white guy to write about a white guy who was censored.”
Later, when a photo shoot for the brochure is arranged for the show, however, Russell can’t attend and the image that ends up being created shows Lee interviewing a white man with his head photoshopped off. (It’s a provocative tableau that recurs in fascinating and funny ways throughout the rest of the production.)
Anyone who’s glanced at the Unsafe program in advance will find spoilers therein. Russell is not credited as a creator of the show at all – and the person we are introduced to as “Zack” on the stage is being played by an actor (Christo Graham, charmingly exasperated).
How did Lee win control over the project? Was it a win? Unsafe is an intriguing meta-drama that leaves room for interpretation when it comes to questions such as whether demands for “diversity” are inhibiting individual creators’ artistic freedom, or expanding what we see on our stages long guarded by cultural gatekeepers (and who the “we” is that sees).
In sharing, and oversharing, on stage, Lee also makes the audience consider when self-censorship might be a good thing in art, and in personal relationships, too. When Russell suggests Lee include her conversation with an interviewee about their experiences with stalkers in the show, she says she doesn’t feel comfortable with that. Should we applaud her for ultimately deciding on danger and discomfort?
In its final preview performance, Unsafe was still a little shambolic and Lee’s performance of herself occasionally felt a bit stilted. But Stanley’s town-hall-style production would probably lose something in charm if it were more polished. The messy medium is the message, in a way: When should choices and constraints and Canadian politeness be equated with censorship, and when are they simply sensible?
Unsafe is at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre until March 31 (canadianstage.com).