On July 3, I witnessed some memorable street theatre at the corner of College Street and Yonge Street – when Black Lives Matters Toronto briefly, but not too briefly, blocked the Pride parade route, asking for nine demands to be agreed to by organizers.
Here were intersectional politics playing out at an actual intersection – and who sided with whom was anything but black and white. A white gay man to the right of me shouted words of encouragement at the protesters, while a black woman to the left of me called out to the protesters that they’d made their point and should keep moving. (I observed and tweeted, as is my wont.)
Debate over BLMTO’s demands (especially the one eliminating police floats in the annual parade) continues – but there hasn’t been as much public discussion of what it is to live at that crossroads of black and queer on a daily basis.
Buddies in Bad Times, Toronto’s leading queer theatre company, had already programmed Black Boys by the Saga Collectif well before the events of July – but its arrival on stage couldn’t be better timed.
More questions are raised than answers provided in this collective creation by three black male performers (plus the black female choreographer Virgilia Griffith and white male director Jonathan Seinen), however. The show evades any clear political ideology – or even a single theatrical form.
Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, who I’ve previously seen on stages at the Shaw Festival and Canadian Stage, comes out to welcome us to Buddies at the start – but when he tries to articulate what the show is about, he cannot complete the sentence. He keeps trying, but it’s as if there’s something stuck in his throat.
To my eyes, Black Boys is a mix of monologues and satirical sketches and debate and captivating dance about the different ways one can be queer and have a black body. It is a (purposeful) failure to create a cohesive whole.
Each creator brings his own style of performance to the table. Jackman-Torkoff is an almost manic performer – his movements frenetic, his gestures provocative, his words flying madly off in all directions. Within minutes of his first appearance on stage, he’s naked. “Too soon?” he asks.
Best known for his one-man play, Obaaberima, M’Carthy, meanwhile, is a very controlled and concise performer. Growing up in Ghana, he didn’t identify as “black” before moving to Canada – and the fact that he’s an immigrant and religious makes him an outsider on this stage rather than his sexuality or skin. (“God and I are lovers – off and on,” he explains, at one point.)
Thomas Olajide is the third member of this troupe. I’ve mostly seen him do Shakespeare before, including at the Stratford Festival. Here he seems the most intensely political (and intently physical) of the bunch, though he also has a very funny monologue about realizing his sexuality as a teen thanks to Mario Lopez on Saved by the Bell.
There seems to be as much that divides these three remarkable performers as unites them. In one scene, they face off after Jackman-Torkoff performs an homage to Josephine Baker in a banana skirt while singing Amazing Grace. (Something in this reminded me a bit of the outré dance-theatre works of Belgian Jan Fabre.)
Olajide is appalled by the routine and especially the use of that hymn (written by an 18th-century slave trader) – and wonders how it will be seen by white audience members (like this critic). Jackman-Torkoff doesn’t want to be censored by his serious-minded colleague – and argues the empowering merits of flippancy and subversion. M’Carthy circles the two of them – noting that people can have their own connection to that song and reminding Olajide that his North American-centric history isn’t his.
It’s a riveting scene – played at full volume – that comes halfway through the show and helps explain a lot of what’s been going on. Obviously, whatever differences these three men have has been overcome – but they’ve decided to keep the conflict in the fabric of their performance.
You might expect a director to step into a collective creation like this and help it find unity – but Seinen seems interested in the failure of form. At the SummerWorks Festival last year, he was involved in a theatre production about the Northern Gateway pipeline based on extensive interviews that were then all thrown out but one ; a documentary show ended up a dance show.
If there’s a connection between the two works, it’s that when words confuse, bodies might help clarify – and, indeed, Griffith’s impressive body-highlighting choreography is the glue that brings Black Boys together.
Fascinated by the personal stories of the three individuals, I must admit I was frustrated to only get them in parts. I wanted to know why Jackman-Torkoff, who grew up in foster families, had to smoke “three bowls a day” to get through working at the Shaw Festival. I wanted to know more about why Olajide’s father was in prison and how his mother died.
But there’s a desire in the work not to exploit story I can understand. Black Boys suggests that conflicts don’t have to be smoothed over, but can be the beginning of creativity.
Black Boys runs through Dec. 11 (buddiesinbadtimes.com).