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theatre review

Marcel Stewart, Sarah Afful and Michael Blake in Small Axe.Dahlia Katz

Sometimes the question sneaks back into your head: What is the point of all these plays about international injustice, anyway?

You go to see a play about the legacy of apartheid, about a war in the Middle East, about a coup in Latin America. You're white; you look around the audience, maybe 200 people at most, and see mostly white faces. You learn a little, you cry a little maybe, and then you leave and write your review. You promptly forget all about the content – was that one about Lebanon or Syria? – but remember how great the actors or the direction or the writing was.

Small Axe, a new piece of documentary theatre by white writer Andrew Kushnir and white director by Alan Dilworth, investigates a similar question, but from an artist's perspective. At first, it seems to be a verbatim show about homophobia in Jamaican culture created in a similar style to The Middle Place – the same pair's excellent 2011 collaboration about a Toronto youth shelter.

Kushnir, who plays himself in Small Axe, starts by addressing the audience directly: "You are black. I am white." It turns out he's really speaking to a Jamaican-Canadian friend, a fellow gay artist who one day shared his experiences with homophobia.

A light went off in Kushnir's head: His friend's battles in his culture reminded him of his own within the Ukrainian-Canadian community – and he decided to make a piece of documentary theatre about it. How could a people that had experienced the "sting of oppression" (Jamaicans, Ukrainians) turn around and oppress a group themselves?

And we're off: Five black actors – Sarah Afful, Michael Blake, Lisa Codrington, Chy Spain and Marcel Stewart – play the Jamaicans he interviewed over the coming years, their dialogue consisting of verbatim excerpts from the transcripts. Kushnir, the sole white actor, sits at the lip of the stage asking questions into a microphone, while the black actors are positioned on platforms at the back of the stage and answer acoustically.

At first, you might mistake the black actors' performances as stilted or unpolished – there's something off about their delivery. But that soon changes – and they start to fully inhabit their characters and give more natural performances when Kushnir's interview subjects start to challenge him about his artistic project.

With a raised eyebrow, one man played by Spain talks about arson: Often, arsonists will light fire to a building – and then return to rescue people from the burning building. The wry implication: That the issue of homophobia in Jamaica can't be separated from issues of slavery and colonialism and poverty that also plague the country – and it's not up to a white Canadian to play the saviour.

Next, a character played by Stewart raises his own objections - and descends from his platform to look Kushnir in the eye; the others soon follow suit. Small Axe stops being just about Jamaican culture – and starts also being a piece of documentary theatre about documentary theatre.

Anyone who has attempted to get involved in an issue that doesn't directly pertain to his or her sex, race or culture will recognize the contradictory responses that Kushnir gets. One woman he interviews tells him he should be using his power and privilege to bring the Jamaican problems issue to a larger audience; another man tells him that it's not his story to tell.

Afful and Codrington are especially excellent in a scene as a pair of lesbians confronting Kushnir at Toronto Pride – rejecting his question about which country is the most homophobic as, ultimately, a racist one. They tell him to work on his own issues – prompting the production's most daring and perhaps most indulgent scene. I'm on the fence about it.

Small Axe really chops away at the big issues surrounding documentary theatre – and problem plays in general. Do these works really make a difference, or just preach to the converted? Is the desire behind activist theatre-makers to change the world – or to feel like they are changing the world and, at the same time, gain the cultural capital that comes from being seen as engaged, progressive and right-thinking? (These are questions I ask of journalism, including my own, as well.)

This is no doubt a worthy exploration – and Alan Dilworth's direction as the show deconstructs itself is inspired. But, at the end, more questions: Did I just watch one more play about a white guy naval gazing instead of a play about a black people? Did these five black actors become props for Kushnir and Dilworth's exploration of their own privilege? Instead of writing a play about "passing the microphone," why didn't they simply pass the microphone? These are questions, not criticisms, per se.

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