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Lucinda Davis and Kwesi Ameyaw in Redbone Coonhound.Cylla von Tiedemann/Tarragon Theatre

  • Title: Redbone Coonhound
  • Written by: Amy Lee Lavoie and Omari Newton
  • Director: Micheline Chevrier with Kwaku Okyere
  • Actors: Christopher Allen, Chala Hunter, Kwesi Ameyaw, Deborah Drakeford, Jesse Dwyre, Lucinda Davis, Brian Dooley
  • Company: Tarragon Theatre and Imago Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Run: To March 5, 2023

Critic’s Pick

With some dogs, the name is worse than the bite. Take the Redbone Coonhound, an American breed of hunting dog whose troublesome moniker threatens to chew to shreds the relationship between an interracial couple.

The couple, Mike and Marissa, happen to encounter the aforementioned hound during a stroll along the sea wall in Vancouver’s west end. When its proud owners announce its breed, Mike, who is Black, is outraged. Marissa, who is white, thinks he’s overreacting. It’s just a name, she insists, adding she wouldn’t be offended by a dog called a Honky Cracker.

Oh, what a white thing to say!

And so begins Redbone Coonhound, the sharp-fanged new seriocomedy by Amy Lee Lavoie and Omari Newton at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. Lavoie and Newton (an interracial couple themselves) have crafted a work that’s a bit of a theatrical canine, too – by turns playful and vicious as it digs deep into the divisiveness of today’s identity politics.

Mike (Christopher Allen) is forced to explain to Marissa (Chala Hunter) why hearing a name like Redbone Coonhound hurts him: “redbone” is a term for a light-skinned Black person, while the odious slur “coon” has been reclaimed by Black culture as another label for white-appeasing Uncle Toms. But Mike himself is guilty of insensitivity, as Marissa points out, dismissing her female concerns about endometriosis with a weak masculine attempt at sympathy.

Kwesi Ameyaw and Chala Hunter in a new production from Tarragon Theatre and Imago Theatre.Cylla von Tiedemann/Tarragon Theatre

Soon the pair are firing insults back and forth. Mike calls Marissa a “Karen” and a “white feminist.” Marissa accuses Mike of being a “mid-Kardashian Kanye.” Things only get uglier after their friends drop by: Jordan (Jesse Dwyre), an awkward white real-estate investor, and Black couple Aisha (Lucinda Davis), a forthright entrepreneur, and laidback Gerald (Kwesi Ameyaw), who happens to be a cop. Repeated accusations of various forms of racism, sexism and classism begin to replace meaningful conversation. Buttons are pressed, triggers are pulled, and you can almost feel the waves of tension rolling off the stage.

But even as things get explosive, Newton and Lavoie repeatedly open a valve of comic relief, in the shape of broadly satirical interludes that skewer racism and sexism, past, present and future.

First we’re catapulted to 1858 Ontario, at a stop on the Underground Railroad, where an escaped slave (Allen) is offered help by a well-meaning Quaker (Brian Dooley), who is all about talk of brotherhood but treats his wife (Deborah Drakeford) like a beast of burden. Thankfully, a hip-hop Harriet Tubman (Davis) comes charging onto the scene, packing a pistol and busting some rhymes, to rescue the slave and empower the wife.

Later, we’re treated to a spoof of 1930s child star Shirley Temple’s tap-dance numbers with Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, a modern-day flip on the 1960s film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and a sci-fi scenario about a Black space mission that has taken cancel culture to the cosmic level.

Deborah Drakeford, Christopher Allen, Chala Hunter and Brian Dooley in Redbone Coonhound.Cylla von Tiedemann/Tarragon Theatre

These sketches are amusing, with an SNL flavour, even if, as with SNL, they don’t always land. The Shirley Temple bit, in particular, ends on a grim note, with hints that the cute little actress is catering to pedophiles (something author Graham Greene notoriously suggested back in the day). The Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner parody, in which aggressively multicultural WASP parents are appalled that their daughter wants to marry a white English professor (and worse – a Tolkien specialist) is a very funny jab at liberal excess. It might have been even funnier, however, if Jordan Peele hadn’t already subverted that old movie so brilliantly in Get Out.

In fact, Get Out is just one of a dizzying spate of current cultural references that zing by in Lavoie and Newton’s packed, breathless script. I suspect they’ve had time to hone the piece. A so-called rolling premiere, it was commissioned by Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre, where it ran last year, first as an audio play, then onstage. We’re seeing a new version co-produced by the Tarragon and Montreal’s Imago Theatre, with a different cast and creative team, save for actor Ameyaw, who was in the Arts Club stage show.

Director Micheline Chevrier, assisted by Kwaku Okyere, has given it a fluid staging, with passages of silent movement between the torrents of dialogue. Busy animated sequences by Dezmond Arnkvarn glide over Jawon Kang’s stark-white set during scene changes and Thomas Ryder Payne’s thundering score keeps you as unsettled as the characters.

Brian Dooley and Deborah Drakeford in the play running at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre.Cylla von Tiedemann/Tarragon Theatre

The actors toggle smoothly between their dramatic and comedic roles. Davis is priceless as the rapping Tubman and Drakeford scores laughs both as a dithering, Valium-popping WASP mom and as a captive Karen of the future, doing penance for her white privilege.

On the serious side of things, Allen conveys real pain under Mike’s prickliness. And while his exchanges with Hunter’s Marissa are heated, the real sparks fly when he finally squares off with Ameyaw’s slow-to-anger Gerald over the latter’s law-enforcement job in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy. As the powerful Ameyaw reveals the frustrations of a Black cop, you’re reminded again of how identities so often obscure the individual.

This is one of those plays that demands post-show conversations. I find I’m still talking about Audrey Dwyer’s Calpurnia, another provocative Canadian comedy about race, years after I saw it. I suspect I’ll be doing the same with Redbone Coonhound.

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