Last Monday evening, Playwrights Canada Press celebrated its Spring launch at the ultra-hip Kensington “Supermarket” with talks by talented Canadian playwrights and the voices that contributed to their newest works. Distinguished attendees included, but were certainly not limited to: Judith Thompson, Julie Tepperman and Philip Akin.
Each playwright who spoke sought to transcend the traditions of “cultural storytelling”: that is to say, the rather prosaic method of retelling the struggles of a particular culture (rather than actually building new foundations on it).
Judith Thompson’s Body and Soul is a kind of modern “Stitch N’ Bitch”, where roughly a dozen women share their stories, passions and frustrations. It’s easy to see how this might be perceived as a feminist work: women complaining about the state of the world? But not once did I hear things like “you can’t, because you’re a woman”. It wasn’t trite; if they wanted to speak up for women, they found innovative ways to broach the topic. Lois Fine, for example, shared recollections of having been sent to a speech pathologist to fix her ‘low register’.
Then came, in Obsidian Theatre director Philip Akin’s words, the “Black stories.” Marcia Johnson’s play Late, which was a part of Obsidian Theatre’s 2008-2009 season, features a heroine dealing with her denial after a friend’s death.
96.3 FM’s web writer Paula Citron mentioned in her online review, “characters in Late could be of any ethnicity.”
Akin was adamant about this ambiguity: “Any story can be a Black story, because it’s coming from you.”
His argument highlights both the progress we have made as an audience and the long way we still have to go when it comes to culturally significant performances. On the one hand, it’s a positive: it means that your cultural voice will shine through anything you do. On the other hand… it means that your cultural voice will shine through anything you do.
In other words: once it’s established that the creator of a work is of a given ethnic, political or religious background, that background immediately comes into the foreground of the work. We, as the spectators, cannot ignore it.
Need evidence? My friend and I were discussing the Broadway hit Wicked. She mentioned an interview she’d heard in which the host criticized Fiyero’s character as an unnecessary foil for what might have otherwise been a lesbian relationship between the two heroines. My friend mused that having Elphaba and Glinda be romantically involved might indeed have been better than including Fiyero at all. My own reluctance towards the proposition stems from that same paradox in Akin’s words.
It’s not that Wicked would lose its acclaim by including a same-sex couple. Look at plays like Spring Awakening and Hedwig and the Angry Inch! Those plays, however, included sexuality issues because those were the main issues. To include a same-sex relationship in Wicked would have eclipsed the original inspiration for the show (Gregory MacGuire’s novel), which sought to explain the Wicked Witch of the West’s troubled life leading up to and following her attack on Dorothy.
It seems that as a general note, we audiences are not yet at the point where we can take a text or work at face value without digging for its roots. Perhaps that’s a good thing.
Julie Tepperman was last to speak. She focused on the process leading up to mounting Theatre Passe Muraille’s production of her play, Yichud (Seclusion), which tells of an Orthodox Jewish wedding and of its effect on surrounding family members. Though her text seemed to deviate less from its cultural roots than those of her forerunners, I appreciated Tepperman’s candor about not having been raised as an Orthodox Jew. Instead, she had obtained a sense of that Judaic sector primarily from her grandparents’ stories.
It’s only now that I realize every playwright who spoke was female—which I think is simply another testament to PCP’s ability to showcase its artists without overemphasizing what it took to get where they are, or where they plan to venture in the future. Instead, they highlight the best of the Here and Now.
That being said—if their Spring Launch was any indication of where Playwright Canada Press’s fall lineup will take us, I suggest we plan a group field trip to the event.
Supermarket, say, 7 o’clock?