Just in case The Addams Family hadn’t given me my fill of teenaged theatregoers last week, I stepped it up this week with a performance of (would you say the name of this play?*) at Young People’s Theatre on Wednesday morning. The piece, originally titled nggrfg, appears to have been renamed in a bid to make it play better on school permission forms. Judging from the packed house on Wednesday morning, it was a good gamble.
Solo, autobiographical performance is difficult to characterize and even harder to review; so much depends upon how one feels about the material and the narrator’s treatment of it. Berend McKenzie’s piece, under whatever title, is presented as a piece about the formative experiences of both his race (black) and his sexuality (gay). It’s made up of vignettes, introduced by a voiceover with title and age of the character (Buddy). As it jumps around in time, the show has the somewhat disorienting effect of providing a building but disjointed context for each successive piece, relying on the audience to do the work of putting things together – a tactic I really appreciated since theatre aimed at young adults is often exhaustingly condescending.
Most of the vignettes are very well-written, and McKenzie is obviously not afraid to revisit them. He commits to each one, at each age, not afraid of looking foolish even as his former foolish self. McKenzie also plays all roles, deftly switching us between characters using clever, minimalist cues of posture and speech. It’s another way in which he leaves room for the audience to lean in and participate, and I appreciated his reserve – and the wisdom of his directors Allen MacInnis and Tanisha Taitt. It’s fairly evident that McKenzie is a naturally generous and emotive performer; somewhere in the writing or rehearsal process they found a good balance within each vignette.
Because the individual pieces were so good, I wished for the show to be better overall. It was certainly good, but there were a few flaws that felt pretty big for me. It was half an hour into the show before we got a good, big sanctioned opportunity to belly laugh (during a “rap” that had us all in stitches) and I’m afraid it was way too long. From the audience, I could feel the surrounding young people leaning into the show more after that, but it may have been too late.
I expected the throughline of trans-racial adoption to provide a strong thematic link between feeling alone and not-well-understood as a gay child of straight parents and feeling alone and not well-understood as the mixed-race child of white parents. It never materialized. Instead there were awkward, somewhat maudlin adoption-related interstices that didn’t seem to make sense unless you looked at the whole show as a catalog of miseries.
Unfortunately, it sort of was. I get McKenzie’s desire to make a case for how hard it is to grow up black, gay, or black and gay, but I don’t think the message would have been diluted by one or two stories in which things go well, or feel close or satisfying, because of his race or sexuality. What saves the piece from being miserable is McKenzie’s great writing and natural joie de vivre (which I do not even mean as a euphemism for ‘gay as a box of birds’, though he’s that too).
Technically, the show’s great, and McKenzie can work a light ten different ways – he’s very nicely aware of the effect they create and he dips and dodges into and around the pools of light on stage during some of the scenes to further create moods and characters. Even from the back row, I could see all of them (not always my experience).
I really hope McKenzie and MacInnis/Taitt collaborate again. I think there’s a great partnership there, and McKenzie has the potential to become the next Daniel MacIvor if he can get his dramatic arc untangled, and decouple it from his obvious and laudable desire to Do Good. There’s a lot there, but unfortunately only about half of the show had it.
- (would you say the name of this play*) is playing at Young People’s Theatre (165 Front Street East) until December 3, 2011
- Shows run Nov. 24 @ 10:30 AM & 1:15 PM. | Nov. 25 @ 10:30 AM & 7 PM Nov. 28, 29, 30 & Dec. 1 @ 10:30 AM & 1:15 PM | Dec. 2 @ 10:30 AM | Dec. 3 @ 2 PM. Only a couple of performances are listed for public purchase at the website, however. We recommend you call for better ticket information.
- Ticket prices range from $15-$20 + HST & service charges
- Tickets are available online, youngpeoplestheatre.ca, or through the Box Office at 416.862.2222