Racism at the birth of Rock n’ Roll, The Ballad of the Young Offender plays at Sidemart’s Theatrical Grocery in Toronto
Crow’s Theatre‘s desire to be the central hub for theatre in the East End is off to a great start. They’re opening a new space in 2016 and to introduce themselves and make their presence known to the Leslieville/Riverdale area, they’ve launched The East End Performance Crawl — a series of site specific solo performances running the stretch of Queen Street East from Broadview to Greenwood on now until Sunday, June 1.
Part of the Crawl is the zany and eye-opening show The Ballad of the Young Offender which features Kyle Gatehouse as blues connoisseur and rock music historian Johnny Hyacinth. His story is of the legendary (but fictional) bluesman Sonny St. You and his trial for inciting rebellion in young people during that critical time when electricity met folk music to create Rock n’ Roll.
Modelled after the Trial of Socrates and highlighting the racism, xenophobia, and fear mongering that spread like wildfire during that time, it’s a fascinating and intriguing story to become immersed in — that is if you’re able to keep up with Gatehouse.
The man speaks incredibly fast, while using lingo and slang outdated by our standards making it a challenge to follow along. He also runs off on wild and crazy verbal tangents while he speaks which doesn’t help. I actually have a friend that has a habit of doing exactly the same; a conversation with him is always an adventure.
That truly is the kind of attitude you need to have when attending a performance like this. It’s an agreement — I agree to trust and follow you, Johnny Hyacinth, on your wild ride while you teach me the history of Rock n’ Roll on the American public, so long as you promise to return me back to my seat in one piece. That may be exaggerating a bit, but he will throw random elements without warning and you just have to trust and let go.
It starts from the moment you sit down after entering Sidemart’s Theatrical Grocery. Once settled, rock music plays from the basement and a voice sings out announcing that the play starts downstairs, please make your way downstairs. As usual, the audience is stunned — are we to get up and follow or is this a gag? When the singer repeats his same lines, we follow suite.
Gatehouse is a very entertaining performer, his personal timing is incredibly well structured, which makes his physical comedy spot on; his energy is magnetic. Watching his performance felt like being a companion travelling with the Doctor with that sense of not knowing where he’s going next — right down to his personal quirks, idiosyncrasies, and inherent clumsiness. It’s funny and charming.
The lighting and audio, with deliberate false starts and mishaps, were used well and to hilarious effect. Director Andrew Shaver did a great job orchestrating all of this while containing Gatehouse’s whirlwind energy in a compact space. Gatehouse’s impressive height left him barely two or three inches shy of smacking his head on the overhead rafters.
Underneath the chaos and the fluster and the ‘what’s he gonna do next?’ lies a story of how a movement, an idea, can rattle the structure of the status quo and the ensuing aftermath. For an arts lover, music fiend and rock junkie like me, it’s a story that holds relevance to this day and Gatehouse captures it well, if you allow yourself to follow along.
- The Ballad of the Young Offender is playing at Sidemart’s Theatrical Grocery (1362 Queen Street E.)
- Performances run until June 1, 2014.
- Time and dates for performances vary, see website for details.
- Tickets are $15 and can be purchased online or at the door, cash only, within an hour before the performance.
- This performance is eligible for a 5-show Crawl pass for $50 and can be purchased over the phone by calling 416 907 0468.
Photo of Kyle Gatehouse courtesy of the company.