February 6, 2023
Editor's note: I’ll be taking a break from this newsletter for the next few weeks. See you at the end of February. -Kelly Nestruck
Dahlia Katz/Handout

American right-wing news outlets have chosen a surprising new target in their culture war against all things deemed “woke”: an outreach night aimed at Black theatregoers at Canada’s National Arts Centre.

Fox News and the New York Post are among the media south of the border that have published sensationalistic reports about the NAC’s plans to hold what’s called a Black Out night for Is God Is. The stylized revenge drama by Black American playwright Aleshea Harris is appearing at the Ottawa performing arts centre in the award-winning production that received rave reviews in Toronto last year.

Here’s a sample headline to give you a taste of the prevailing tone: Canadian theater sparks backlash with plan to host play with Black-only audiences: ‘Cultural apartheid’.

What’s downright bizarre about this to anyone who follows theatre is that Black Out nights are a phenomenon that originated on Broadway in 2019 with Jeremy O. Harris’s Tony-nominated Slave Play. They’ve since been replicated outside New York in cities such as Los Angeles and Boston to no controversy of note and much thoughtful coverage in in outlets such as The New York Times and the LA Times.

The American artists and producers who came up with the concept describe it like this: “the purposeful creation of an environment in which an all-Black-identifying audience can experience and discuss an event in the performing arts, film, athletic and cultural spaces – free from the white gaze.”

Black spectators and artists in the U.S. have been interviewed about what it is like to take part in these performances of Black-written plays – how different scenes are performed and received, or how the lack of (or lack of fear of) policing of behaviour from others in the audience affects things, for instance.

This is an atmosphere that has to be cultivated at mainstream theatres, as Black people usually only make up a small percentage of that audience – whether on Broadway, or at the NAC.

So why does the New York Post now think a concept that originated in New York being practised in Ottawa four years later is news?

Last week, Quillette editor Jonathan Kay, a former editor of the Walrus, tweeted out an NAC blog post written by communications officer Sean Fitzpatrick trumpeting Is God Is’s upcoming Black Out night. It described the one-night reserved out of a two-week run as designed to “welcome an all-Black identifying audience to experience and enjoy a performance in the Babs Asper Theatre.”

Kay’s take on this was that the federally funded arts institution is now offering “racially segregated shows” – a view that was then amplified by fellow Canadian and controversial guru Jordan Peterson, who tweeted: “For shame @CanadasNAC. Truly.”

Things spiralled from there in ways that should be familiar to anyone who has spent any time on the Internet.

The NAC’s sudden spate of critics contend that Black Out nights violate human rights. But they don’t, or, at least, they shouldn’t.

The American originators of the concept have published a FAQ online for those who want to follow in their footsteps and make sure the events are legal: “We did not prevent or preclude anyone from attending the BLACK OUT performances … nobody was turned away.” That was the case, too, with the Black Out night for Is God Is that took place in Toronto last spring.

In response to media inquiries last week the NAC clarified that no one would be turned away from its Black Out night either. But it was only on Monday, in the face of phone calls, e-mails and social media comments, that it put out a public statement saying that “everyone is welcome at all shows of the NAC” and changed the post on its website to reflect that as well.

Black Out nights have been happening, off and on, in Toronto since 2020. It never occurred to me that they might spark controversy, just as I’ve never thought senior hours at the grocery store or women-only swimming hours at the public pool would.

So I can’t really fault the NAC for not predicting blowback. Still, this is an opportunity for its sizeable and growing team of communications strategists to reflect. Does it sometimes prioritize touting its progressive initiatives to a broader public over direct outreach to the communities they are directed at?

What can Canadian theatres who want to plan future Black Out nights – or perhaps performances for other minorities – do to avoid being mobbed by the Internet in the future? It’s worth noting that the original ones on Broadway were private, invitation-only events; seats were filled through extensive outreach, including giving away tickets to Black student organizations.

Theatre opening nights are often invitation only, and individual performances of plays can bought out by corporations or reserved for student groups. This is something Canadian theatre companies might want to consider going ahead, in addition to a disclaimer that no one will be turned away – though I can’t fathom why anyone who is not Black would show up when they have other performances to choose from.

It’s not hard to put yourselves in the shoes of others: Ann-Marie MacDonald, for instance, did so all the way back her 1996 novel Fall On Your Knees, which I reread recently in order to review the stage adaptation.

In one chapter, Ginger, a Black truck driver living in Cape Breton in the early 20th century, is in New York waiting for a shipment of dresses and has a transformative experience listening to a jazz trio in Harlem.

MacDonald writes: “Whenever Ginger is in a place that’s filled with other black people it’s as though he is relieved of a weight that he was unaware of until it came off him.”

It’s a shame that an attempt to lift that weight has come under attack – but the future of theatre in this country requires that all sorts of strategies be tried and tried again to broaden audiences.

What’s opening this week across Canada

The PuSh International Performing Arts Festival is now in its final week in Vancouver at various venues. For my picks of the final programming scroll down to the bottom of my feature on its recent restructuring.

Little Red Warrior and His Lawyer, an irreverent look at Indigenous issues by Kevin Loring, is at Theatre Calgary from Jan. 31 to Feb. 19. Marsha Lederman reviewed the show in Victoria at the Belfry Theatre last spring.

The Royale, a play with punch inspired by the life of the first Black heavyweight world champion, is at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton from Feb. 4 to 19. I enjoyed the Soulpepper production back in 2018. This is a completely different one, directed by the great actor and up-and-coming director André Sills.

Between a Wok and Hot Pot, a new production by Amanda Lin about Asian identity and cultural appropriation that involves the cooking of a traditional hot pot onstage, is on at the Theatre Centre until Feb. 12. The indie company Cahoots – now under the artistic director of Tanisha Taitt – is on a streak of strong shows since resuming in-person performances last year. We’ll see whether this continues.

Things I Know to Be True, a family drama by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell (When the Rain Stops Falling), is having its Canadian premiere courtesy of the Company Theatre as part of the off-Mirvish season. Stratford Festival vets Tom McCamus and Seana McKenna star in the production that runs at the CAA Theatre from Feb. 1 to 19. Look for The Globe and Mail’s review next week.

Yerma, an acclaimed adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s play by Simon Stone, hits the stage this week in Toronto at the Coal Mine Theatre, which moved to a new location after a fire. This is both Diana Bentley’s debut as director, and Sarah Gadon’s stage debut. It runs Feb. 5 to 26. Look for The Globe and Mail’s review next week.

I’ll be taking a break from this newsletter for the next few weeks as I am away form work. See you at the end of February.

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Michael Cooper 2022 coopershoots.com/Canadian Opera Company
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