I observed something quite unusual in the lobby of Neptune’s Studio Theatre on Saturday night waiting for the commencement of Vancouver-based performer Berend McKenzie’s show at the Eastern Front Theatre’s Supernova Festival. It was interesting to watch a cluster of Haligonian theatregoers tackle the title of McKenzie’s play, nggrfg, an abbreviation of “nigger-fag,” a volatile summation of his story about growing up as an African Canadian gay man in “straight, white, Canada.” Saying (and hearing) the title makes the audience members I see uncomfortable, but not in a way that seems at all to dampen their enthusiasm or their interest in the work.
While I am sure that both these words are used by people in Nova Scotia they are not ones that are typically heard while milling about the province. Nova Scotia still has palpable remnants of the Victorian policy of politeness and propriety, which I think keeps racism and homophobia cloistered away to more intimate arenas, such as the home, school and places like that. Yet, it is precisely for this reason that a play like McKenzie’s, one that tackles bullying and the power of language, is so important in a city like Halifax, to confront the cruelty that we may try to sweep under the rug but that still persists, and finds devious ways of rearing its ugly head.
From the moment Berend McKenzie walks onto the stage in nggrfg, he immediately endears himself to the audience; they relax simultaneously when he says, in a soft spoken voice, “I know. I don’t like these words either.” Having united the audience firmly to his side, he takes us, in a whirlwind, into the world of Buddy, a vivacious, sensitive young boy who loves skipping, twirling, his Michael Jackson Thriller jacket, holding on to all his special memories and who wants nothing more than to be accepted, included, liked, and to fit in. What works really nicely in this play is that McKenzie is able to use Buddy’s experiences being beaten up, ostracized and humiliated for being black and for being gay (and more so for “acting (stereotypically) gay” than any sexual predilection) to educate audiences about the serious impact words like “nigger” and “fag,” and all the hateful, oppressive connotations they conjure up, have on the feelings of self worth of human beings. Yet, this play isn’t just about being black or about being gay, it resonates strongly about the larger issues of bullying that anyone who has ever spent any time on a schoolyard can relate to ardently. This connects us all to Buddy and shows, wordlessly, that despite what our preconceptions may be, we all understand his insecurities, doubts and the desire to belong, although we may manifest it differently.
There is a show I love by Toronto’s Contrary Company called You Fancy Yourself, performed by Toronto-based tour de force actor, Maja Ardal, that tells the story of a young Icelandic/Scottish girl named Elsa who Buddy reminds me of intensely. On the one hand, Elsa and Buddy couldn’t be more different, they live in different countries, in different generations, one is a straight, white, girl, one is a black, gay boy, but they have the same heart, and, although I’m aware both are fictional characters, I think if they met in some alternate universe, they would become immediate best friends. And, that, I think, is the point. It is not about what color our skin is or who we want to sleep with, what shines most brightly and makes all the difference is our hearts. Nggrfg is all heart.
McKenzie is also a vibrant actor, who commits every ounce of energy in his body to every single movement, which causes characters to burst out of him as though from a Jack in the Box, and each one is a perfect entity unto him or herself. Like in You Fancy Yourself, the characters that surround our protagonist represent iconic people that each of us have had in our lives, such as the bully or our unrequited love, but, like Ardal, McKenzie gives us real, three dimensional people living in these roles so that the play is not just a didactic After School Special, but its own unique story that we are interested in engaging with. The direction, by the late great Denis Simpson who passed away last year, is sharp and specific and keeps all McKenzie’s panache focused like a laser beam of talent continually catapulting into the audience.
Nggrfg has been touring to schools in Vancouver, which is certainly the right place for this kind of play. I would love to see it travel to schools across the country, because its message is effective, but it is not so didactic that the message usurps its ability to entertain. In Halifax, where one needs to look only as far as the awkwardly nearly all-white cast of West Side Story now playing at Neptune Theatre’s Mainstage to see that something is amiss here, it is clear that both bringing in artists of all colors and nationalities to our city’s theatres, as well as fostering the arts and giving opportunities for artists of color living in Halifax to work in the theatre community is an overdue and important venture. I’m glad to see nggrfg being produced here and was glad to hear the unbridled accolades bursting forth from the show’s audience members as they went off into the night on Saturday.
The Supernova Festival continues this week with FOUR NEW SHOWS BEGINNING TOMORROW, TUESDAY, MAY 24th, 2011.
Week Two: May 24-29: Dedicated to the Revolutions, So…What About Love?, …and stockings for the ladies and WeeTube.
Tickets are on sale at the Neptune Theatre Box Office. Adults $25, Seniors/DND/Arts Workers $20, Students $15. *Same day, multiple show discount. We encourage you to catch a double (or triple or quadruple!) header. Your first ticket is full price, however if you purchase tickets for a 2nd, 3rd or 4th show on the same day, those tickets are 50% off.
In person: 1593 Argyle Street. Phone: 902-429-7070. Online. All prices include HST. Neptune service charges for phone and online orders not included. Check out the full schedule here.
The Carleton Music Bar and Grille on Argyle is the SuperNova Festival HotSpot. You’re invited to mix and mingle with the cast and crew every night after the final performance. Take your Supernova ticket stub with you and get 10% off your order.
See you at Supernova!