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Although he’s better known in theatre circles as an administrator, Luke Reece is also a prize-winning slam poet who knows how to hold a stage.Cesar Ghisilieri/Supplied

  • Title: As I Must Live It
  • Written and performed by: Luke Reece
  • Director: Daniele Bartolini
  • Companies: Theatre Passe Muraille and Modern Times Stage Company
  • Venue: Theatre Passe Muraille
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: To March 2

As a boy, Luke Reece was always teased about his name. Other children would hear it and immediately drop into a Darth Vader impersonation, intoning, “Luke, I am your father!”

Reece, who hadn’t seen the Star Wars movies, would wonder why everyone was always claiming his paternity. He already had a father – not a dark lord, but a Mississauga family man who worked in marketing at Goodyear and would always take his children to the company’s annual picnic on Toronto’s Centre Island, where he’d inevitably win the men’s foot race.

That was in the happy times. When Reece was 10, his father lost his job and plunged into a depression that triggered a slow, frightening spiral into mental illness.

“I don’t know the right way to talk about it,” Reece admits late into his solo show, As I Must Live It, premiering at Theatre Passe Muraille. “But I do know the wrong way is to not talk about it.”

His performance, a dramatic monologue mixed with spoken-word poetry, is a brave attempt both to openly discuss his father’s affliction and also to explore how it has shaped his own life. If at times it does feel like he’s grappling with the right means to do that, you can only admire his candour. And it helps that he’s such an engaging performer.

Although he’s better known in theatre circles as an administrator – currently the associate artistic director at Toronto’s Soulpepper – Reece is also a prize-winning slam poet who knows how to hold a stage. His energy and charm grab you the moment he bounds into the Theatre Passe Muraille lobby, where the show begins, wearing red Adidas, toting a red backpack and evoking the innocent little Mississauga schoolkid he once was.

After providing a little family background – his father’s roots are in Barbados, his mother’s are in Italy – and passing out a few props (the show includes some gentle audience participation), Reece recounts his first efforts at writing. As a six year old, he was fascinated by the squirrels quarrelling outside his window and wrote a story about them that was included in a school magazine. But only half the story was published – an outrage that has led to his lifelong hatred of editing.

Youthful writing figures again, powerfully, when Reece leads us into the theatre’s main space. The show, co-produced with the Modern Times Stage Company and directed by Daniele Bartolini, is performed in the round, with a circular riser for a stage on which coloured papers are scattered. Later, Reece passes these out to the audience and we discover that they’re photocopies of thoughts his father jotted down as a young man. They prove to be dark, Hamlet-like reflections on the futility of life and, in troubling retrospect, suicide.

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After providing a little family background and passing out a few props, Reece recounts his first efforts at writing.Cesar Ghisilieri/Supplied

Reece also reads his own early efforts to describe his father’s battle with mental illness, in a Grade 12 essay where he likens it to a boxing match. Eventually, we get a mature iteration on the same theme when Reece performs his poem Creases, in which the fight is also one against the cultural perspective of how Black immigrant men should behave.

Reece shares a great deal more, from anecdotes about his father’s debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder to a poem addressed to his mother in which he processes his parents’ separation.

There are also moments when he lightens the mood. At one point, he dons a Tyrannosaurus rex costume to riff on his childhood passion for dinosaurs – and bemoan the 2015 reboot of the beloved Jurassic Park franchise. It’s an amusing digression and feeds into his theme about his search for Black male role models, but it’s also one of the pieces that makes this loosely structured show feel overlong. I’d suggest cutting it, if Reece weren’t so sensitive about editing.

There are meta moments, too, where he confronts the risks that artists take when they use their families as material, as well as the tricks that memory plays with us. Reading his teenage essay, he discovers details about his past that he’d misremembered when describing them to us earlier.

Bartolini’s staging is immersive and intimate. The informal seating includes hassocks made of tires (Goodyear, presumably) and the entire space is washed in flowing projections by Barrett Hodgson and Thom Buttery of British design studio Limbic Cinema. Theatre Passe Muraille is using a “relaxed environment” for all its performances this season – this show kicks off its mainstage series – which means audience members can move about, talk, and exit and enter the theatre at will.

It’s an approach that suits Reece’s pieces – and I use that terrible pun only because he’s addicted to punning himself. While there are some intense sections, the show has a relaxed vibe overall. Scenes of anger and sadness, and painful memories of his first encounters with racism, are tempered by warm tributes to his pasta-making Italian nonna and his Bob Marley-loving Bajan grandpa – culminating in an audience singalong of Three Little Birds. At the show I saw, he also threw in a delightful hip-hop number as an encore – cementing my impression that Reece looks just a little bit like Lin-Manuel Miranda.

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At one point, Reece dons a Tyrannosaurus rex costume to riff on his childhood passion for dinosaurs – and bemoan the 2015 reboot of the beloved Jurassic Park franchise.Cesar Ghisilieri/Supplied

While it’s important to openly discuss mental illness, I did leave the theatre wondering how Reece’s father felt about having his private struggles made public. Hopefully he appreciates its value to others and is proud of his poet-son for revealing the vulnerabilities that too many men, Black and otherwise, keep locked away.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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