'I am biological proof of the idea that there are more things that unite people than divide them." Born in Manchester, England, to a South Asian father and an Irish mother, Toronto-based actor-musician Raoul Bhaneja was instrumental in bringing Disgraced (Ayad Akhtar's gut-punching Pulitzer-winning play about Islamophobia, politics and corporate ladders) to Toronto. He is also one of the drama's four cast members, along with his wife, Birgitte Solem. We spoke to the charismatic and self-described "beige" Mr. Bhaneja about diversity and power structures in Toronto.
Given the socio-political content of Disgraced and your own mixed ethnicity, I'd like to hear what you think about multicultural Toronto and its so-called postracial community.
Right. Ask the Black Lives Matter folks how they feel about that.
How about I ask you?
[Laughs.] Well, I grew up in Ottawa and I was still in Montreal at the National Theatre School in 1994 when I first began coming to Toronto. I'm half-Indian and half-Irish, and had lived abroad a little bit, and I didn't feel different here. In fact, being this weird mix that I was almost made me fit in more.
What's your sense of the city today, now that you've lived here for 20 years?
I think what's happened in the past couple of years, as there's been a heightened awareness around, is that we've gotten a little too comfortable with the idea that we are a city that because everyone was different, we were all equal. The fact that there was a general ability to get along in our differences, that that immediately meant there was equality.
Equality in what sense?
When you look around at the people in charge of things, then you begin to perceive how deeply rooted the power structure from the Toronto the Good days were. The first summer I was in Toronto, I was walking down Yonge Street, and there's an Orange Day parade. From someone with Republic of Ireland roots, I was like, "Wow." I thought, "Gee, I guess this really was a Protestant town." So, there's an establishment conservatism that's at the core of Toronto, and it's slow to include people into those power structures. It's something that I thought would have moved in the last 20 years.
So, we call them movers and shakers, but the movers aren't budging, are they?
That's it. Unless you can move to another part of the world that's really hopping, Toronto is the end destination for so many careers and professions. There's not really a place you're supposed to go, after this, if you stay in Canada. You look at the artistic directorships of the theatres in Toronto, and you kind of think, "Man, it's been the same bunch of guys trading chairs for 20 years." It's a phenomenon that happens in New York too.
What about diversity in Toronto theatre, in terms of content?
I think there's a new appreciation that content that comes from diverse storytelling has the potential to do well. There have been a few cases that have been successful, like Kim's Convenience, that have shown people there is an appeal in diverse story for a general audience.
And what about the audience, and its diversification?
They've grown more diverse. And the artists inside the community are way more diverse. But there's a kind of bottleneck at the top. The people there, it's their turf. They've earned it and they're not about to give it up anytime soon.
Disgraced plays to April 24, $39 to $99, Panasonic Theatre, 651 Yonge St., 416 872-1212 or mirvish.com.