There's been much fretting, particularly in the Twittersphere, of late about how the red-hot debate over cultural appropriation in Canada will lead artists and writers to censor themselves out of fear of landing in social-media jail.
It's a baffling concern from my vantage point as theatre critic: Over the past year, I've seen show after show that suggests that Canadian playwrights are actually being inspired by the conversation over who can tell whose story and how, rather than stymied by it.
The latest to jump into the fray is Kat Sandler – a crowd-pleasing writer of comedies whose very funny new play concerns a white playwright who has written a hit play about police brutality and is about to strike it rich by saying that black lives matter.
Bang Bang begins when Tim (Jeff Lillico), the playwright in question, shows up at the house of a black ex-cop named Lila (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah) who left the police force after she shot a young, unarmed black man after he ran a red light.
Tim's play, Two Shots, was inspired by this "incident"– the major differences between fact and fiction being that the young man in his play dies, while the young man that Lila actually shot survived; and the fictional cop got a trial, while the real one was only tried in the media.
Lila's been day drinking and depressed ever since the shooting, and living with her mother, Karen (Karen Robinson). Meanwhile, Tim's career has sky-rocketed thanks to his topical play – and it's now about to be made into a movie.
That's why Tim has shown up unannounced this morning: Jackie Savage, a famous black former child star who will star in the movie, is on his way to Lila's home to learn more what it means to be a cop, under the mistaken belief that she is supportive of the project.
When Jackie does arrive with his bodyguard, a white ex-cop named Tony (Richard Zeppieri, who is truly hilarious), all the conversations you might expect to arise from this come up in mostly comedic form: Why did Tim choose to write about a black cop shooting a black youth? Why has the cop been changed from a black woman to a biracial man in the movie? Does freedom of speech mean freedom from responsibility for it?
Soon enough, all the characters are sitting down to read Tim's play aloud over beer and rum – with Jackie trying on the role of the cop for size, and Lila playing a version of the youth she shot. (Tony reads the stage directions – allowing for much self-satirizing of the more pretentious elements of theatre.)
Coincidentally, Bang Bang opens at Factory Theatre just as Audrey Dwyer's Calpurnia is closing across town at Buddies in Bad Times. The black playwright's sold-out show concerned a black screenwriter who wanted to retell To Kill a Mockingbird from the perspective of a black cook and gets told she is not "black enough" to do so. While Dwyer's craft is not yet at the level of the prolific Sandler, I found her examination of race, representation and what it is to be "woke" a little more complex and specific by comparison.
Lillico gives an entertainingly physical performance as playwright Tim in Bang Bang, but his character is never really given a fair shake – and he becomes a straw (white) man in the lead-up to an over-the-top conclusion.
Sandler is herself a white playwright writing, in a way, about police brutality – and she worked with a black dramaturg (Siminovitch Prize nominee Donna-Michelle St. Bernard) on her show and it has been programmed at the only major theatre in Toronto run by an artist of colour (Nina Lee Aquino). I would have been more interested in seeing a version of a playwright closer to Sandler's own self in the play. Or one closer to Montreal's Annabel Soutar – who has written a play about the death of a racialized young man by police that is opposed by his family, not the police. One who is at least trying (if not succeeding) to be conscientious.
In the end, Tim's clear hypocrisy and complete unlikeability is particularly problematic because he is the most vocal critic of systemic racism and excessive force in the play – and, with both ex-cops entirely sympathetic as played by Roberts-Abdullah and Zeppieri, that side of the debate ends up being underrepresented.
Bang Bang will be at least as popular as Calpurnia, though, I expect. Theatre audiences seem to want to talk (and laugh) about these issues, not run for the hills from them.
Bang Bang (factorytheatre.ca) continues to Feb. 18.