Review: Promises To A Divided City (Mammalian Diving Reflex/Theatre Centre)

Teens make their pledge to aid Toronto class divisions in Promises to a Divided City playing at The Theatre Centre

Promises to a Divided City is an interactive experience where teenagers engage the audience in thinking about geographic and class divisions in Toronto. You also get to explore the new Theatre Centre in the former Carnegie Library building at Queen and Lisgar; hear some of the history behind Andrew Carnegie, the American industrialist multimillionaire who gave Toronto the money to build this (and other) libraries; and you even get a free book.

Because the show was developed by the teenagers themselves, the analysis of class is not very nuanced. I was a bit alienated right off the bat when one of them came out with the opinion that if we could just teach a “hobo” how to earn money, then we wouldn’t have to give him money for food. There’s a lot missing from that, like systemic oppression, disability considerations, and the use of a word other than “hobo.”

There was also a piece of the show that was quite unique, but also very unnerving, so much so that it could be (and was) triggering for some people. If you think a having a series of teenagers whose faces you can’t see whispering intimately into your ear while you’re laying in a bed might be disturbing for you, perhaps skip this show.

Ultimately, though, I’m glad I went because seeing young people thinking about things that matter is always heartening. The title of the show is literal, in that they ask you to make an actual promise regarding places in the city. And I intend to keep the promise that I made, and I hope that everyone who goes to the show will as well. They have said that next year they will bring us all back together to confirm that we fulfilled our promises and I look forward to that.

And I also hope that we, as a society, find a solution to the biggest problem presented, and one that’s not limited to Toronto – the growing gap between the rich and the poor. This is something that often weighs on my mind, and sometimes I feel despair because I don’t know what I as a person can do. But seeing thirty-one teenagers caring about it gives me hope for the future.


6 thoughts on “Review: Promises To A Divided City (Mammalian Diving Reflex/Theatre Centre)”

  1. Hey Dorianne, thanks for checking out the show. Now that it’s done, we can reveal that you were watching characters, not real people. So the character of Lopsang Nakpa (played by Chozin Tenzin), who held the politically incorrect view of “hobos” was not one of the youth, but a character we created. The point in that case was that his naive view of wealth creation is exactly the same as Carnegie’s, whose class analysis was not at all sophisticated. All of the biographical information of all of the other characters was also similarly fictional, with positions and opinions created for dramatic effect, with the hopes that the audience would assume it was all real. It was a piece of theatre from start to finish. See you next year at the party!

  2. ps: where we did hope to anchor some sophistication was in our live use of the audience’s income data and the embodiment of a shifting class difference, relative to different places and people in the city as well as each audience member to the others. Questions of redistribution were also tackled, another theme dear to Carnegie’s heart but, in this case, as we head into an era of patrimonial capitalism not seen since the gilded era, the question (as posed, again, by the presence of the character Lobsang) is whether we want redistribution to be left up to the whims of the wealthy (public libraries donated by industrial magnates) or do we want to collectively and democratically redistribute through taxation. “Can I get some fucking transit!” We were also using techniques from the realm of behavioural economics and behavioural game theory to foster a sense of embattled solidarity (triggered, indeed) and then a deeper commitment to the promises and issues. That those techniques appear to remain undetected is perfect, but, now that the show is over, I’m happy to reveal them.

  3. Looking back on the review, it’s actually quite shocking that Emmerton starts with the monumental agist assumption that “Because the show was developed by the teenagers themselves, the analysis of class is not very nuanced.” This first generalization means that her interpretation of the show is coloured by her prejudices about teenagers. If she didn’t have this blindspot, she might have been able to ask why the creative team was deploying the information they were. It could be argued that she would have then just attributed the information to the poor class analysis of the adult creative team, but it’s more likely that If she thought a competent adult with a nuanced class analysis created the show, she might have made more efforts to dig deeper to understand what was going on. Emmerton’s agism occluded her understanding of the project from the get go.

  4. in a facebook exchange, Emmerton demonstrates that she has a really hard time checking her own prejudice. She responds to my criticism of this by writing “the program itself said that the project was youth led.” Beyond this not being what the program said (It says that the youth wrote and performed it with additional text by a few others and that it was conceived and directed (thus led) by me), it’s still adheres to her prejudice, as if because youth led it we’re still in the land of bad class analysis. she needs to spend more time with teenagers.

  5. Darren,

    Thank you for taking the time to comment in a public forum.

    It was an unusual course of action for you to initiate the conversation with the writer via private message over Facebook and I am glad you brought it back to a public forum. Afterall, how can wider discourse happen if it isn’t out in the public eye?

    That said, of course, if there are any specific factual concerns that you may wish to address in a private venue, then the please feel free to contact the editors through the same email address used to send us the invitation to the show.

    I just wanted to take a moment to step in and say that as an editorial team we stand 100% behind the review as written.

    Having worked with Dorianne Emmerton for several years now I am confident when I say that her saying it was not nuanced because it was youth would not have been a situation of lack of analysis, but rather a situation of her trying to provide what she understood the context to be for some negative feedback.

    Perhaps the wording could have been different so that it made that fact clearer, something perhaps that spelled it out a bit more clearly for readers so that they understood this was the case, and that in fact she was just saying that the analysis of class lacked nuance for her, and that perhaps one reason for that would be that the people she understood to have created the piece simply did not have the same amount of life experience as other artists whose work she is accustomed to seeing.

    The fact that the teenagers were not, in fact, the creators, does not change the fact that the piece left her feeling alienated or that it felt like it lacked nuance.

    And, Mooney on Theatre is, after all, a publication that is entirely about the perception of the person seeing the show. One person’s opinion. Also, since we try to write for an audience that is not steeped in theatre, it is not a venue for deep analysis, simply a reporting of experience and perceptions.

    Some of us who have backgrounds and/or educations in theatre (people like Dorianne Emmerton and me for instance) can occasionally have a harder time with that than others since the temptation to go all theatre-geek and dig deep in analysis is high, but that is not what MoT was created to do, it was created to talk about what a show felt like for the person who saw it.

    That is exactly what this review has done.


    Megan Mooney
    Founding Editor, Mooney on Theatre

  6. my only point was that by writing “Because the show was developed by the teenagers themselves, the analysis of class is not very nuanced” revealed a prejudice. Rather than trying to understand what was being discussed by presenting particular political points of view, her prejudice led her to disengage.

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